Eliminate the R-word on campus to promote inclusion

Jennifer Beck

Moving 1,122 miles away from my Midwest home to Central Texas meant I was in for some culture shock, and I’ll admit, I have enjoyed some of it. I love the way Texans deep-fry everything, and I admire the state’s unequivocal love of football. But as much as I love fried cookie dough and UT football games, I cannot deny that some parts of southern culture do not sit right with me. 

Perhaps it is because my hometown was so invested in the issue, but prior to living in Texas, the R-word — retarded — was not something I heard often. One of the more unpleasant parts of my move down south was discovering this cultural indifference to the R-word, which many Texans use frequently.

Although student organizations such as Best Buddies are working hard to eradicate the R-word from our day-to-day jargon, the University has a responsibility to get involved. UT needs to demonstrate its support of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities by taking a definitive stance against the R-word. 

“I think (the R-word) is certainly used in a derogatory way,” said Dr. James Patton, an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Special Education. “It releases this conception that someone who is ‘retarded’ is somehow inferior and less capable.”

Dr. Patton thinks most people who use the word do so without understanding the word’s implications, rather than out of malice.

But even out of context, the R-word is still derogatory because it has become synonymous with “stupid.”

“I wish (people) knew more about the history of the word,” said Cara Johnston, biology senior and vice president of Longhorn Best Buddies. “When (people) use it now, they think of it as another word for stupid, but it goes back and is used to describe people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

Although most aren’t actively targeting those with intellectual and developmental disabilities when they jokingly call someone retarded, they are equating stupidity with mental retardation — a fallacy that legitimizes the idea those with disabilities are stupid.

“No one wants to be made fun of like that,” Johnston said. “No one wants something that is so integral to who they are to be used as an insult for someone else.”

Some argue the word isn’t offensive out of medical context because “mental retardation” was the clinical term used for so long, but this is not a salient argument. Thanks to Rosa’s Law, which was signed by President Obama in 2010, the term “mental retardation” was replaced with “intellectual disability” in education, health and labor policies.

As times change, so should our language. As a university with such wide influence, UT must step in and work harder to educate the community on the effects of the R-word.

At freshman orientation, students are required to attend a variety of performances about identity and stereotyping. These performances touch on racial, sexual and gender identity but do little to acknowledge individuals with disabilities.

To improve awareness of students with disabilities on campus and promote respectful discourse, these performances at orientation should include a section about identity and stereotyping related to disabilities. This section should address how offensive the R-word is and how it affects those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

UT students and faculty can show their support for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities by participating in Best Buddies’ “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign that takes place in March. The campaign encourages people to take a pledge to stop using the R-word.

“It’s a pledge to yourself and a pledge to those who have intellectual disabilities,” Dr. Patton said. “It’s a pledge to be conscious and sensitive to how hurtful language can be.”

Beck is a radio-television-film freshman from Park Ridge, Illinois.