The R-Word: Spread the Word to End the Word

The “R-Word.”

It’s a word that is difficult for me to allow out of my mouth. It’s difficult to even type it.

A word once used in medical vocabulary to describe a less advanced state in mental, physical, or social development, is now more commonly used to mean anything from a derogatory term towards someone or something, to simply something one thinks less of.


A word used often, and frequently without thought. I am not sure which is worse: using the word with intentions of meaning it as a harmful term, or using the word flippantly with no ill intention at all.

My passion for ending the use of this word stems from my work as a caregiver for a boy with special needs named Calen.

What started as a simple job quickly became a life-long relationship between not only him and myself, but also between both of our families. Calen is an incredible young man who brings such light and joy to anyone fortunate enough to meet him. While he is non-verbal and currently undiagnosed, there is nothing that can possibly slow him down. His strength and positivity continue to inspire me each and every day, even though we have been many miles apart for a few years now. 

Before working with Calen I did not fully understand the impact this word could have, and I am sure I was even guilty of using it every now and then. People around me used it often and I did not think much of it, but after beginning my work as a caregiver, I quickly recognized its power.

Just because Calen is non-verbal does not mean he does not comprehend. He very clearly understands when you speak to him, and will respond appropriately. Which is why, even though no one could definitively say if his feelings were hurt by anyone’s’ thoughtless remarks, blatant stares, or rude actions, those close to him see how he feeds off that negative energy. Being a part of his life opened mine to many more experiences with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, where I often witnessed their hurt from other’s remarks and actions as well. 

When used, whether intended to or not, the word perpetuates a stigma against individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Not only is it hurtful and disheartening for someone to hear, it represents a false sense of reality that these individuals are any less intelligent or capable.

Not only is it hurtful and disheartening for someone to hear, it represents a false sense of reality that these individuals are any less intelligent or capable.

If you are reading this, and the "R-Word" is often a part of your vocabulary, I challenge you to think about why you choose this word among so many others. There are many ways to describe how we feel about things. This word should not be one of them. I understand that it has become somewhat of a societal norm, and that is unfortunate.

Words hurt. 

I understand that if you have not experienced the pain that this word can bring someone, you may not be as motivated or inclined to remove it from your vocabulary. I was once in your shoes.

I encourage you to remember that your words have impact in ways you may not always be aware of. I encourage you to think before you use such a powerful word. Realize that you are not only potentially causing hurt, but perpetuating a stigma whether you intend to or not. 

And I remind you: there is a simple solution to all of these concerns.

Just stop saying it. And encourage others to do the same.

Sarah Tucker.jpg

Sarah Tucker

Osteopathic Medical Student - 2nd Year (OMS II)
President, PNWU Developmental Medicine Club
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences

Sarah Tucker