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Today, the word “retard” is a term no parent wants to learn is associated with their child. Although parents of children with Cerebral Palsy may not immediately consider how the R-word could apply to their child, here’s why it matters, and why it needs to go.

A word about the R-word

Words hurt.

It’s a reality that children may not talk about often because they’re embarrassed or humiliated, but the things kids – or even adults – say can have a lasting effect on how a child sees themselves or his or her capabilities. This is especially true for children with special needs that are already struggling to learn and adapt physically, mentally and emotionally to what’s happening around them at home and at school.

The word “retard” or “retarded” use to be a clinical term coined by the health care community to describe a person’s medical condition. It meant that a person’s intellectual capabilities were impaired. The term was never meant to insinuate a person was not smart or incapable. The term was as benign as referring to a person with blood sugar issues as “diabetic.”

Over time, the meaning of the R-word became tainted when a clinical term evolved into an insult. Today, the R-word is more often used as an derogatory label meant to dehumanize others. When a person does something foolish, they become labeled through slang as “retarded” insinuating a person has lower intelligence.

Even the special education bus that transports children with special needs from home to school has become tainted. Some people think it’s okay to refer to an ill-advised person, or a person they think has little common sense, as one who “rides the short bus.”

When a slang word or expression is used to belittle an individual long-term, that word becomes a slur. Slurs are derogatory in nature and intentionally used to demean another, yet others use the term superficially without full consideration to the harm caused to others.

On the flip side of the debate, we hear quite a bit of pontificating about whether or not we have become a society too focused on political correctness. There are forces at work that say that efforts to eradicate terms meant to disparage one’s race, one’s religion, one’s sexual orientation, or one’s medical condition are tantamount to imposing restrictions on free speech.

But those who doubt the power of the R-word to a child with special needs should consider, what if it were their child, or a person they held dear, that was called “a retard?” What if the delicate effort it took as a parent to bolster their child’s self-confidence was undone by the reckless use of a careless comment? What if the use of the derogatory label caused other children to physically harm or lash out towards their child? How would they feel if their child became reclusive, introverted, emotionally stunted, and ostracized?

A proper burial

Parents of children with Cerebral Palsy have a stake in eradicating the R-word. An estimated two-thirds of children with Cerebral Palsy have intellectual and cognitive impairments; one-third are severely or moderately impaired, and the other one-third has only a mild impairment, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institute of Health.

Children that have an IQ of 70 or lower are considered to have an intellectual impairment that may cause cognitive difficulty when attempting to learn, process, reason, or problem solve. They may experience additional challenges performing daily activities of living, such as self-care. Other issues that children with an intellectual impairment may have that create challenges include anxiety, attention disorders, depression, and low self-esteem. Obviously, these factors will affect a child’s performance in school and his or her interactions with others. They may require assistance as they master tasks other children take for granted.

Given the challenges that many children with Cerebral Palsy already face – whether or not they actually have cognitive impairments or disabilities – it places undue pressure to have a derogatory label placed on them. It is because of these challenges that everyone who comes into contact with the child should create an atmosphere that allows the child to develop, express themselves, bond with those in their lives, and cope with their physical condition and emotional frustration.

One way to help create a more understanding and inclusive environment at school and at home is to speak frankly about the challenges faced by a child with intellectual disabilities. Too often, able-minded children will assume that a child that is different from them – physically or mentally – may not have feelings.

However, if it is explained to them that a child with disabilities has feelings, hopes, dreams, and aspirations just as every other child does, the child that may say the R-word is given the opportunity to empathize with his or her peer, and may resist the temptation to make hurtful statements.

Additionally, many kids with Cerebral Palsy are non-verbal or have speech impediments, which others may interpret as a characteristic of someone with intellectual impairments. At school, a child with special needs is especially vulnerable to verbal taunts that may include the R-word. Children have a limited capacity to understand the hurt one word can cause.

Making progress

There has been some progress in eradicating the R-word and its meaning from the greater vocabulary.

The Special Olympics launched a campaign to banish the R-word as inappropriate in 2010, and so far, more than 300,000 people have pledged to stop using the word. The “Spread the Word to End the Word” aims to change people’s mind about using the R-word through a comprehensive public awareness campaign.

The most significant effort to remove the R-word is Rosa’s Law, which removes the terms “mentally retarded” and mental retardation” from all government and education policy manuals and replaces them with “intellectually disabled” and “intellectual disability.” The law was named for Rosa Marcellino, an 8-year-old from Maryland whose parents worked for the passage of such a law after their daughter’s school changed the designation on Rosa’s files from “impaired” to “mental retardation.” Some use cognitive impairment as a safe term, as well.

But it remains to be seen whether such efforts will change what children hear in everyday situations where statements like “you’re so retarded” get thrown around every day.

The “Spread the Word” campaign estimates that the R-word is used on Facebook around 6,000 times per day, and it’s not used as a clinical term. And in many cases, those references are likely gleaned from posts from young people.

That’s why outreach in school facilities and measures reinforced at home can be effective in eradicating the R-word. Many believe by instilling empathy, awareness, understanding and zero-tolerance in young children while they are still impressionable – is vital. Correcting teens when they test their boundaries is also recommended.

Eradicating the R-word is going to take more than public service announcements and online pledges. It means making sure that, at every stage of a child’s life, we are fostering an atmosphere of support, awareness, understanding, respect, and acceptance. It must be undertaken by everyone – from a child’s parents to neighbors, peers, friends, family, and educators. If ever the adage of “it takes a village to raise a child” applies, it’s now.

Achieving an outcome where each child is given the framework to respect others will mean that adults will have to let go of bad habits that at a less enlightened time were casual insults or playful ribbing. Today, we know that the the use of the R-word harms others.

The “do as I say, not as I do” approach will not work in this case. Adults need to set an example that gives children the gift of being able to find acceptance in others, in the community, and most importantly, in themselves.

Special Olympics encourages everyone to “Spread the Word to End the Word™”

Special Olympics has championed the national efforts to ban the R-word in their “Spread the Word to End the Word™” campaign. They aim to raise public awareness about the dehumanizing and hurtful effects that result from the use of the R-word. Referencing that the R-word is exclusive, offensive and derogatory, they are encouraging people to pledge to stop using the word. For more information on this campaign, visit “Spread the Word to End the Word™”

To view and share their videos, visit: Special Olympics PSAs

Would you call my child a retard?

A Message from Max’s mother

“Most people would never call a kid with cognitive disabilities a “retard” to his face … If you wouldn’t say the word to my child because you know it’s offensive, you should avoid using it elsewhere, too. Either way, it’s demeaning. Either way, it hurts my child,” wrote Ellen Seidman, a longtime magazine editor and mother of Max – a boy born with Cerebral Palsy. She launched the popular “Love That Max” blog in October 2008. Last March, she created this video with the hopes of raising awareness and allegiance to the Special Olympic’s ongoing effort to “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign pledge.

“Ultimately, this isn’t just about a word—it’s about respect. It’s about getting people to consider kids and adults with cognitive impairment equal members of society. It’s not about censorship, either; it’s about starting a conversation on how people can better treat Max and others like him,” Ellen wrote. “Feel free to post the video on your blog, tweet it, Facebook it, beam it up to alternative life forms. It would mean a lot to me. No matter what, thanks for taking a look.”

To watch Ellen’s video, visit: “Would you call my child a retard?”

To follow Ellen’s popular “Love That Max” personal blog, visit: Love That Max Blog

To follow Ellen’s “Love That Max” on Facebook, visit: Love That Max on Facebook


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