“I remember as a teenager, walking through a department store and someone behind me yelled ‘Look at that retard!’” said Potter. “It was hurtful. I remember turning around and saying ‘That’s just not ok! What you called me was just not ok.’”
Recently, I was in an upscale restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia when I heard a couple at the table next to me use the R word. Because I was shocked that such language was being used in an establishment by individuals whom I believed would never use such language (yes, I acknowledge my incorrect belief in the connection of social norms and social status), I listened more closely to decipher their connotations and use of the word. These adults were using the language in the same manner as students in K-12 and collegiate environments. After this experience, I conducted an informal interview, where I asked participants the following question: “Is it ever okay to use the R word? ” The respondents’ comments ranged from “the word should never be used” to “one can retard the timing of the engine.” All of the participants were educators, and two have earned PhDs in Special Education from a comprehensive research university and were both practicing special educators. However, a young woman with a master’s degree in education posited that the R word is acceptable if it is not used negatively toward another person.
As an educator, I have witnessed the pain the R word has caused so many of my students. The word is overwhelmingly used negatively toward students with special needs. I am adamantly opposed to the word being used in any context; however, I question how we, as educators, can combat the institutional history and hegemony of the word. Unlike other hate language (such as the N word or the F word), the R word is rooted within a clinical context. I postulate it is more difficult to change the landscape of hate language when the language has been institutionalized within accepted parameters.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (2014), the R word (adjective) is defined as, “held back or in check; hindered, impeded; delayed, deferred.” Further, as an adjective the word is “characterized by deceleration or reduction of velocity.” In 1895, the word was used as a “diagnosed with or characterized by learning difficulties or an intellectual disability; spec. having an IQ below 70; designating a person regarded as mentation deficient; slow, dim, feeble-minded.” In physics the word means, “designating a potential or other parameter of an electromagnetic field in which an allowance is made for the infinite propagation speed of the radiation, the potential due to a distant source being expressed in terms of the state of the source at some time in the past.” As a noun, the word means, “the fact of being slowed down or delayed with respect to action, progress, or development; lateness, slowness; a delay or slowing down,” and can be traced back to 1781. Moreover, as a verb, the R word is defined as, “to hold back, delay, or slow (a person or thing) with respect to action, progress, etc.,” and can be traced back to 1490. Further, as a transitive verb, the word means “to put off to a later time; to defer, postpone, delay.” In 1909, the word became more prominently used within education and psychology as a noun meaning, “a person displaying or characterized by developmental delay or learning difficulties, and a child whose educational progress or level of attainment has fallen behind that expected for his or her age.”
In modern society the word is still being used with two major academic disciplines, music and science. In music, the word is a musical notation that signifies a slowing of tempo that will most likely return to its original tempo at any given point in the piece. For example, one may say “I see the retard on the page”, or “Why don’t we try retarding there.” The use of the word in these instances has no connection to intellectual abilities. Conversely, the word is slowly disappearing within the science community; the word “retardation” is slowly being replaced with “electrophoretic mobility shift assay” and “mobility shift electrophoresis.” However, the replacement is quite slow, in fact, the change has been occurring since the 1990s.
Although, the above discussion of the word revolves around academic discourse, the reality of the usage is quite troubling. Recently, I was walking across campus and documented hearing the word 7 times in a ten minute walk. Within broader society, the word is also quite prevalent. In 2014, Lebron James, a famous basketball player, used the term (www.ESPN.com ). In another instance, a CEO used the word in reference to how much individuals with special needs should be paid (Huffington Post, 2014). These are only two examples. From a quick Google search, there are numerous other examples discussing someone using the word in public, predominantly in a negative manner.
Although there appears to be different meanings and uses for the word, a majority of the American population use the word in a hateful manner towards individuals with special needs. The word causes anguish. It is problematic when the word is still used in a clinical manner with students. In fact, I recently had a conversation with a veteran special education teacher who used the R word in our discussions when referencing a clinical diagnosis. This teacher has been teaching for 30 years. When she used the word, I was troubled but did not address her language choice. If she had used the N word or the F word (referring to gay and lesbian students), I would immediately opposed her language choices. If I, as an academic researcher and teacher educator, felt apprehensive about addressing the language, how can I expect new teachers to address the word when functioning within the agency of schooling?
As an educator, I believe it is imperative to eradicate the R word from all uses within our society. Our students deserve to learn and live in a safe environment, which is free from all hate language. In this capacity, we must begin contemplating how we are preparing our teacher candidates to combat the language choice in a manner that dismantles the institutionalized acceptance of the R word. Further, as advocates for individuals with special needs, we must begin a grassroots effort to change the way other disciplines use this word. We can no longer accept the use of hate language based on a contextual meaning. Because the word is used in music and maintains a different meaning, it still destroys a marginalized population within the broader society. Thus, we must unravel the institutionalized acceptance of the R word.
I am aware that I am asking for an incredible feat. However, it must be done. All students deserve to attend school and not be disenfranchised and harassed because of difference. Our students deserve a place where they can achieve greatness. The language used in schools and classrooms create an atmosphere that can promote or hinder greatness. We can control that language.