Students: Saying the R-word hurts others


Midway Staff

Editor-in-Chief Clare O’Conner argues that while students might not mean to offend when using the R-word, it still can be extremely harmful.

Clare O'Connor, Editor-in-Chief

The first time I was called the R-word was in second or third grade. 

At the time, I only had a vague understanding of what the word meant. I was struggling with several undiagnosed learning disabilities, and every day a few other kids and I were pulled out of class to work on “special reading lessons.” A girl told me that my “special class” made me an R-word. I denied it. I told her that I was “normal” and “smart,” adjectives that, at the time, I felt disproved her statement. 

Less than a year later, I was diagnosed with dyslexia, the first of many diagnoses for both physical and learning disabilities.

Now, as a senior, the R-word still follows me, cutting through the ambient chatter of a passing period. It really hurts. 

The R-word has long been used as a playground insult, used to mock someone by insinuating they are disabled. Inherent in this usage is the belief that being disabled is something shameful and worthy of ridicule. 

The word itself comes from the Latin root meaning to hinder or to slow, and has been used in the English language since the 15th century. In 1961, the American Psychiatric Association adopted the word as a scientific term for people with intellectual disabilities, and as time progressed, the R-word became a blanket term for people with any mental or physical disabilities. In 2010, “Rosa’s Law” was signed by President Barack Obama, replacing in federal laws and regulations any legal usage of the R-word with “intellectual disability.”

I doubt many U-High students use the R-word for the purpose of demeaning people with disabilities. If I pulled aside a student who I heard using the R-word in the halls and asked what the word meant, they would likely tell me that it just means “stupid” or “crazy.” But, if I pressed them and asked where their definition comes from, I believe they would know the answer. Most students aren’t ignorant of the discourse surrounding the R-word, and they know some people say the word hurts. Some students choose to use it anyway.

Still, I don’t blame my peers who use the R-word.

The R-word has been a constant in cultural circles throughout our entire lives. YouTubers, singers and comedians who use the R-word flippantly have served as the backdrop to many Gen Z childhoods. 

So I understand it must be difficult to stop saying the R-word, but it’s far from impossible. It’s already easy for students with disabilities and learning differences to feel isolated at U-High, trying to keep up with a rigorous system that wasn’t built for our brains or bodies. Even if you don’t use the R-word to attack people with disabilities, I promise you, other people have. Is a synonym really worth reminding us of the moments we’ve heard it used in anger, or of the knowledge that some people will always see our differences as inherently negative?

If you’ve never questioned your own usage of the R-word, start reflecting. If you’ve only ever responded to hearing the R-word with a frown, start saying something. If you’re a parent, sending your kid to a school full of other people with different lived experiences, start a conversation. Please, from a teenager with disabilities, stop saying the R-word.