As a euphemism for retard and retarded, the R-word is derogatory and rude when used to characterize or disparage persons with intellectual impairments or to insult people, places & things by comparing them to people with intellectual disabilities.
During this same time period, the label “mental retardation” is being phased out and replaced by “intellectual disabilities” or “cognitive impairments.”
History of the R-Word
To “retard” something is to impede or slow it down. For medical purposes, the term “mental retardation” was coined to replace other, deemed more offensive words.
As a neutral term, it was adopted by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) as part of its Diagnostic & Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1961. (DSM).
Since its inception as an insult, the term “retard” has come to mean “dumb” or “idiot.” Even if the taunter wasn’t intending the insult persons with intellectual disability, it was disrespectful to use the word in that manner.
Getting rid of the R-Word
Rosa’s Law was signed into Law in 2010 as activists worked to change the medical language. Mental retardation was replaced with the terms “mental disability” and “an individual with an intellectual impairment” in U.S. federal law, thanks to this change in terminology.
DSM-5 and ICD-11 adopted new terminology in 2013, with intellectual developmental disorders and intellectual disability replacing mental retardation as part of both editions. Some people may take offense when the older phrase is used in a medical or legal context without intending to offend.
Denouncing Its Utilization
An outcry over Tropic Thunder’s usage of the R-word in 2008 has grown into a push to ban the word from everyday use. To provide tools for anyone interested in encouraging others to make a pledge, a website was set up.
During Special Olympics’ “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign in March of each year, people pledged that they would no longer use the R-word on r-word.org (now spreadtheword.global).
R-YouTube word.org’s channel features a PSA from Glee actress Lauren Potter, who has Down syndrome, urging people to stop using the R-word.
There are several less-offensive alternatives that can be used in place of the R-word, notwithstanding the claims of those who oppose its use that “you can’t say anything anymore.” Your speech should be more interesting and less threatening.
In the same way you would instruct your children not to use a racial or ethnic insult, you should teach them not to use the R-word. The word should no longer be used by anyone under the age of 18, regardless of whether they are a child or an adult.