Why are ableist slurs still so frequently used?

Content warning: ableist language.

The words ‘r*tard’ or ‘r*tarded’ are offensive terms used to describe those with mental disabilities and learning difficulties, yet are often used casually to describe people and things that are slow, inadequate or incompetent. It is time to start asking why so many of us accept this.

The R-word is a minority slur. That is, it has been and is used to belittle and demean a minority group, something which everyone should understand is wrong. Most people wouldn’t dream of using the F-slur to describe a gay person, or the N-word to describe someone who is black. Historically, the uses and the implications of these words differ, but behind all of them is an intention to intimidate and belittle people who are different, or less powerful, than the majority. Because of this, the R-word is deeply hurtful to those with mental disabilities.

If people know not to use other slurs, then why is the R-word still in common usage? Most people don’t wish to cause offense to disabled people when they use the R-word. Maybe they don’t realise that historically, it has been used in specific reference to specific mental disabilities. Maybe they genuinely just think that the R-word is synonymous with ‘stupid’ or ‘silly’.

Sadly, this is not the case. According to a 2015 survey run by Google, people with learning disabilities are still commonly associated with the R-word. 40 per cent of people associate the word ‘retarded’ with learning disabilities. Then comes a further 30 per cent who associate the R-word with somebody acting in a foolish way. Even if you would never use the R-word to directly describe and insult a disabled person, it is difficult to deny that this word remains deeply associated with disability.

So, using the R-word is hurtful. It is a minority slur and it is still associated with disabled people. But this still leaves our main question unanswered: why do people use the R-word if they know all of these facts? At this point, the answer seems obvious: people just don’t care enough.

This is not to say that people actively dislike those with disabilities. Most of the people who use the R-word probably do care that mentally disabled people have good and happy lives, but the disregard is systemic. It is society that doesn’t care. The government doesn’t care. Our parents and teachers don’t care. Not in a malicious or targeted way, more in a dismissive, ‘it’s not my problem’ way.  The frequent, ingrained use of the R-word is a symptom of this.

If the government really cared about disabled people, there would be better legislation in place to ensure that those with all kinds of disabilities get the care and opportunities they deserve. If our teachers and parents really cared, then we wouldn’t hear the R-word used by children in schools. And if we really care then we should stop using the R-word, and correct our friends when they use it.

Sometimes, yes, speaking out is hard. When you hear your friends saying something you know is offensive, it can be difficult and embarrassing to stand up to them. But it’s time to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and start standing up for those who are really being hurt by this ableist slur.

Words have power, especially coming from the mouths of people who already have privilege. Joking around with your mates for a laugh is fine, but it’s time to stop getting the laugh at someone else’s expense.

 

Image: Suye Xu

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