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  • Writer's pictureCory Morrison

Say NO to the R-Word

Updated: Sep 15, 2023

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A common, hurtful word to refer to people with disabilities or anyone a person may consider as "stupid" or "lower than them" is the R-word.

This word is upsetting to many people, including those with autism who go through unique challenges.

Recent R-word Use

The word use has still been alive in Ontario.

Earlier this week, there was an incident in Fergus, Ont. where a person spray-painted the R-word on an autism services building. Freya Hunter, who operates Autism Behavioural Services Inc., providing Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) services to Wellington and Dufferin counties, said she and her community felt heartbroken.

The suspect also spray-painted a homophobic slur under the R-word. "I think when people are using words like that, they don't fully understand what autism is. Ignorance shouldn't be an excuse but those are just hurtful words."

Why the R-word Hurts

A young man named Richard describes being called the R-word as having emotional bullets. When someone called him this word in the past, he felt angry, disgusted and vulnerable. He also says that they have brains, feelings and can taste and smell things like other people.

Here are a few quote examples from Spread The Word: Inclusion:

“The word retard is considered hate speech because it offends people with intellectual and developmental disabilities as well as the people that care for and support them. It alienates and excludes them. It also emphasizes the negative stereotypes surrounding people with intellectual and developmental disabilities; the common belief that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities should be segregated, hidden away from society, which, in my opinion, is really old fashioned.”
– Karleigh Jones, Special Olympics New Zealand athlete

“It hurts and scares me when I am the only person with intellectual disabilities on the bus and young people start making “retard” jokes or references. Please put yourself on that bus and fill the bus with people who are different from you. Imagine that they start making jokes using a term that describes you. It hurts and it is scary.”
– John Franklin Stephens, Special Olympics Virginia athlete and Global Messenger

When saying the R-word, “What we mean is that he is as stupid as someone who is mentally handicapped, and we mean that in the most derogatory sense. The implication is that the only characteristic of mentally handicapped individuals is their stupidity.”
– Crystal, Stanford, CA

“Because the word has become a casual description of anything negative or flawed, ‘retarded’ is no longer considered an appropriate way to describe people with intellectual disabilities. And any use of the word, even when used as slang and not intended to be offensive, is hurtful - because it will always be associated with people who have disabilities.”
– Sara Mitton, Board Member, Treasure Valley Down Syndrome Association

Therefore, people as a society need to value the strengths of all types of human beings. No matter what a person's use of the R-word is, they need to understand that it stigmatizes people with disabilities.

Many of these people do their best to function in society with a disability they did not choose to have.

My Personal Experiences

Elementary School

Because of the supports I received in elementary school, I remember few people called me the R-word or have even said it regularly. I think most of my peers knew they would be in deep trouble if they got on my bad side like that.

I first learned about the word in third grade when one kid said it (not about me). I didn't hear much of it during the rest of elementary.

There was one exception, however. One time, in sixth grade, I wore a Tommy Hilfiger shirt to school and a girl told me, "That shirt looks R-word." I didn't wear Tommy Hilfiger to school again after that.

High School (Series of Incidents)

In high school, particularly in the first two years, I heard the word non-stop. I'm not exaggerating when I say that it was some of my peers' favourite word in their vocabulary.

Thankfully, at least some of my teachers tried to address that the word is offensive.

In ninth grade gym (first semester), I had a couple of people call me that word because I was clumsy, socially awkward and couldn't fit in well with my peers.

One of the guys bullied me so much back then; there was a final straw incident where my mother reported him to a teacher and got a vice-principal involved. This student changed gym classes after that.

In grade 11, I sat alone in the hall studying for tests and practicing the guitar one day during lunch. Two guys tried to bully me, saying, "Hey buddy! You want to be my friend?" in an insincere way.

I reported it to a teacher I knew who was on resource teacher duty then. I talked to a vice-principal about it. They didn't go to the office because, at this point, I forgot what they looked like.

You may ask, what does the R-word have to do with the incident above? Fast forward to a month later, I was in the hall and one of the guys who bullied me a month before shouted to his friend, "That guy's a *Swear word* R-word!" I reported it again to the same teacher and another vice-principal sternly dealt with him.

The final incident was in grade 12 when a guy who used to bother me a lot called me the word as we left my Ontario Literacy Course class one day (I, unfortunately, failed the grade 10 literacy test two years prior). I didn't report it only because I was used to this guy getting on my nerves.

Thankfully, I have heard only a few people use the word in my work and college days.

Has Much Has Been Done?

There have been initiatives where people have tried to raise awareness about the stigmas associated with the R-word. For example, Spread The Word: Inclusion was originally named "Spread The Word To End The Word" in 2009.

In recent years, their focus of the campaign has been to not only eliminate the R-word but to include people with disabilities. It's not a reversal from earlier days, but there is progress.


The R-word hurts. It is completely unacceptable. Nobody should ever use it. The world would be a better place if people respect all kinds of people and don't use the R-word.

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