Letter: Rethinking the use of the ‘r-word’

Though I applaud Matthew Ellison for raising the issue of the use of the “r-word” in his column “Fighting for our words” (Feb. 10), and though I agree that the “r-word” is not as offensive as the use of the “n-word,” I would say this: Using it is much worse . Utter the “n-word” in a room full of Yalies, and half of them will — rightly — start shouting at you. Utter the “r-word,” and most of them will laugh. True, the “r-word” does not refer to institutionalized oppression; instead, it refers to oppressive institutionalization, which, unlike slavery, is still common today.

The use of the “r-word” is appallingly acceptable in our society — the number of people, from teachers to priests to friends to strangers in restaurants, who called my brother, who had Down Syndrome, the “r-word” to his face is shocking. And until America understands the offensiveness of this word, everybody, from your roommate to the president’s chief of staff, should be criticized even for the most casual use of the term.

While it would be nice if everyone could be Albert Einstein and Marie Curie, being who you are — white or black, gay or straight, a Yale student or a grocery clerk, is never undesirable, even if, or especially if, “who you are” includes the fact that a doctor told you that you have a mental disability.

Catherine Sheard

Feb. 11

The writer is a sophomore in Branford College.


  • anonymous

    you mean the word retard?
    Please,lets cut the bloody euphemisms.
    “R-word?” What’s next? E- word, b-word, g-word, u-word, h-word, j-word, x-word, q-word, l-word….until we completely abandon anything like an intelligible use of language

  • BR10

    It is worth pointing out that “mental retardation” is still the clinical name for “being challenged” or whatever the PC term is. The word is only offensive because people started using it to insult others, not because of what the word actually means.

    You can get around this obstacle, I suppose, by saying that someone HAS mental retardation rather than saying someone IS mentally retarded. But you still have to admit that it’s not the word itself that’s offensive; it’s the way people choose to use it.

  • BR’10

    Also, there’s the issue of the normative definitions of ‘goodness’. Particularly, in no world will being mentally handicapped be ‘ideal’ or ‘good’ or ‘normative.

    To be mentally handicapped will generally always be an undesired condition, thus, no matter what word you use – eventually, you’ll hit this snag.

  • Yale2010

    A very nice letter. Social stigma is a wonderful way of eliminating hurtful vocabulary from regularly accepted speech. It’s much preferable to governmental intervention — so trolls, please don’t cry “Freedom of Speech.” This is abount what what moral judgements we make as friends, families, and as a society.

    However, it is unclear to me that using “mental disability” or “intellectual disability” is in any way preferable. Both still serve as a way to put people into categories instead of treating them as individuals. I think it would be much preferable to stick to saying that someone has “[fill in the actual diagnosis]”.

    Of course, there will always be people who use whatever word is acceptable as a new pejorative, but simple cruelty can thus be distinguished from unintentional insult.

    An interesting side-note, however, is that by further “medicalizing” how we look at brain function, we may be actually increasing social stigma. There was a recent NYT article to this effect regarding mental illness, as a whole, which noted that people tend to be less sympathetic to individuals in they think a problem is “medical” and thus should be able to be “fixed” or “prevented” as opposed to a nebulous condition that exists on a pseudo-spritual level.

    To return to the main point, however, there is one good societal reason for having terms that are all encompassing, as opposed to individualizing each diagnosis: Sometimes individuals would much rather be able to use a categorizing phrase than explain a medical condition each and every time they interact with another person. It also gives strangers a baseline for how to interact with an individual whose medical condition they do not know, and perhaps feel uncomfrotable about inquiring in too much detail.

    Whether the term is “mental disability” or “metal retardation”; “physical disability” or “cripple”; words are sometimes necessarily used as a crutch for social interaction. And sometimes those words are used purposefully cruelly. The question then becomes: When does a word become so hurtful that is should be socially stigmatized? When should a word instead be reclaimed (as the LGBTQ community has successfully done)? How do decide, respectfully, as a society between the two?

    In this case, I fall on the side that “retardation” and “retard” should be stigmatized, going the way of older words that became perjoritives, such as “idiot” (“person so mentally deficient as to be incapable of ordinary reasoning”) and “moron” (“adult with a mental age between 8 and 12” (Source: http://www.etymonline.com)

    However, I will not use the term “r-word,” for the same reason I don’t use “i-word” for “idiot” or “m-word” for “moron.” Because when we refuse to say the words aloud, we lose the ability to explain where words come from, and why they hurt, and thus the ability to convince those around us of why we should abandon them, so that someday their dictionary definitions will say: “archaic.”

  • @#4

    That NYTimes article (I assume you mean “The Americanization of Mental Illness”?) was actually pretty bad and overlooked a lot of what we know about cross-cultural effects. Ask any psych major why. Generally, the media are awful about accurately capturing psychological phenomena in a way that is both scientific and readable. Alas, it’s usually one or the other, and three guesses as to which you see more.

  • J. Goodrich, Special OIympics volunteer/coach

    Thank you for baring your personal reasons for supporting this movement. It will take more of us to speak up and point out the hurtful nature of this word to see real change, but we have to try!

  • An unaffected sibling

    Thanks a lot for writing this.