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February 8th, 2010
05:00 AM ET

'R word' politics stir up controversy

By Carol Costello and Bob Ruff

What’s in a word? Groups who suffer discrimination see certain words as powerful cultural weapons used by those determined to keep them in their place.

Suffragettes at the turn of the century, civil rights demonstrators in the 1950s and 1960s, and gay rights activists at the turn of the century all understood that educating Americans about the hate and discrimination embedded in certain words was an important step toward claiming their rights under the Constitution.

The targets of the “B” word, the “N” word, and the “Q” word see them as barriers to equality. Now there is the “R” word. It stands for “retarded.”

Most recently, the president’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, was criticized for using the “R” word when describing liberal Democrats. The resulting firestorm of criticism led to a meeting last week at the White House between Emmanuel and Special Olympics. The Special Olympics’ goal is to bring “dignity, acceptance and a chance to reach one’s potential” through athletics to people with intellectual disabilities. It was founded by President Kennedy’s sister, the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

Her son, Anthony Shriver, is the founder of Best Buddies, a nonprofit group that strives to create opportunities for “people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

Shriver was not at the White House meeting with Emanuel, but spoke to people who were there. He told us that the chief of staff was apologetic and “committed to becoming an advocate to end the ‘R’ word, and the use of the ‘R’ word. ... He [Emanuel] said he didn’t really understand how harmful what he said really is to the population.”

We caught up with Frank Stephens this week to discuss the “R” word. Stephens is a 27-year-old man with Down Syndrome. He was so upset by the depiction of intellectual disabilities in the film “Tropic Thunder” that he wrote a letter that was published in several newspapers and magazines around the world.

We asked Stephens about this latest controversy. “It’s very hurtful," he said, “to those that are trying to live in this community.” He doesn’t think people are necessarily mean when they use the “R” word, but “they just don’t ... take the time to get to know us better. When they do, people really like us.”

One conservative who doesn’t sound sympathetic is radio host Rush Limbaugh. Last week on the radio he said, “Our politically correct society is acting like some giant insult’s taken place by calling a bunch of people who are ‘retards,’ ‘retards.’”

Special Olympics is moving on several fronts to remove the “R” word. They support legislation to eliminate the term “mental retardation” from Federal laws. They’re also urging people to sign an online pledge not to use the “R” word.

Rahm Emanuel recently signed the pledge and he promised to “examine” Congressional legislation that would remove the “R-word” from Federal law. The president’s chief of staff may have his work cut out for him, as evidenced by a Justice Department Civil Rights Division document. Halfway down in the document we spotted the phrase, “mental retardation.”


Filed under: Controversy • Politics
soundoff (41 Responses)
  1. consuelo castillo

    I know it is a word but hurtful to us. i do not want my son to go through what i did are no one.

    February 9, 2010 at 7:25 am |
  2. E. Elliott, Orlando

    A sad thing in this country when a loser like Rush actually is right about something. Let people relax and not get their shorts in a bunch over every tiny issue. Let's focus on health and finance reform and the petty stuff will still be there later for those with nothing better to worry about.

    February 9, 2010 at 7:05 am |
  3. Dan C Johnson

    People need to grow some hide. We will never learn to get along by suppressing one another's speech. It only causes more resentment. When people are secure in themselves words don't matter.

    PC will be the ruination of our society. Time for everyone to grow up and learn to survive in the real world.

    February 8, 2010 at 12:59 pm |
  4. Ralph Patch

    The problem isn't the word Retard but the fact Palin and other conservatives are using it as a tool for their divisive propaganda.

    February 8, 2010 at 9:56 am |
  5. todd

    I have been working with people with developmental disabilities for about 10 years now. I have many friends with disabilities. I hear the word retard thrown around alot. Yes it is just a word, but it is hurtful to people who struggle with disabilities. Politicians are supposed to work for us and to hear them using words like that is sickening, it shows disrespect to the people they are supposed to be standing up for. When will we all learn to treat eachother with respect ?

    February 8, 2010 at 9:47 am |
  6. ronvan

    'GET OVER IT" ! This is just getting to stupid. I guess some would like to form a "committee" go A thru Z, looking for words that offend some! And then of course remove those words from EVERY piece of written material!

    February 8, 2010 at 9:35 am |
  7. Heather B.

    As a person who used to use the "R" word, I fully support this movement. I currently work for an organization that works with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and realize the hurt, malice, and stereotypes associated with this word. In the news piece one gentleman said the slang word is used to describe someone who is "ignorant". That is the root of the malice. People who were born with an intellectual disability are not ignorant. They are intelligent, wise, and highly adaptable. Continuing to associate a physical/mental disability with ignorance is no worse than associating a person's skin color with some inate goodness or badness-which in this enlightened day and age we would never do out loud, and certainly not in a political arena. Just as each of us can not control what color our skin is, individuals with intellectual disabilities can not control the fact that they were born with a disability.

    Let's stop using excuses for why the "R" word should continue to be acceptable and see it for what it really is, one of the oldest forms of discrimination that society, for some odd reason, wants to hold on to.

    February 8, 2010 at 9:28 am |
  8. Joseph Daniel Brian Lawlor

    I have members within my own family unit who are considered mentally challenged and I did not take it as an insult but I imagine the Republican lackies will respond in complaint....as they are doing

    February 8, 2010 at 8:40 am |
  9. ken

    I am not upset about palin whining about the word retarded. The real story is that rham emanuel the chief of staff for obama thinks his liberal base is retarded. Obama sold himself as a liberal and the pubs and tea party call him a socialist. Obama and his foul mouth chief of staff not only hate liberals but obama has proven to be a right wing capitalist and war monger who caters to wall street, k street and defense contractors at the expense of main street. That is the real story. This has nothing to do with special olympics or discrimination.

    February 8, 2010 at 8:38 am |
  10. Joseph Daniel Brian Lawlor

    Rahm Emanuel was in his right ot use the R word for it was not intended to insult the mentally challenge but more to expose the mentality of the Republican Party which is justified.

    February 8, 2010 at 8:36 am |
  11. Perry

    Retarded means that a person is limited mentally in some way. When you call someone a retard you are comparing them to a person who has limited mental capacity. Does it make any difference what the word is ? Black people don't want to be called colored, but they still have NAACP. What does the CP stand for ? Blacks don't want to be called Negro, but don't we have a United Negro League? It's not the name, it's attitude of the person who uses the word. You can't ban attitude, nor can you legislate it.

    February 8, 2010 at 8:29 am |
  12. John

    Rush Limbaugh is nothing more than low life scum.
    People who stick up for him must also be the same.

    February 8, 2010 at 8:23 am |
  13. Jeff Carter

    The "R" word, you're kidding, right? Where is in going to end? There will only be another word that the masses will use to refer to people who lack the ability for logical thought. What I mean is, words have been used in the past, such as moron, imbicile, feeble minded, or even stupid. I just find it difficult to believe that we will slaughter the English language just because someone is OFFENDED !!! I live in West Virginia and I'm offended to be referred to as "hillbilly"...and want it banned.....how rediculous does that sound? Of course, RETARD has other meanings than just referring to someone who has a lower than normal intelligence, such as, to slow down. Let it go, its not worth it. My message to the "offended" no matter where they are, is to grow a spine and get over it. Political correctness is costing us millions....

    February 8, 2010 at 8:13 am |
  14. Mac

    Can we find another name for Crackers? I get so offended when I hear that word. I think President Obama needs to appoint a Word Czar. We really need to shape people up on what they can say and think.

    February 8, 2010 at 8:12 am |
  15. Daisy21

    The Democrat's insistence on political correctness and their eagerness to be the word police over the years has now come back to bite them with Rahm Emmanuel.

    February 8, 2010 at 8:09 am |
  16. consuelo castillo

    Hello my name is consuelo castillo i am from Round Rock Texas. I was born with a disaility and i have alot of friends that has disabilitys and we do not like the R work at all it makes us feel ugly. how we see it that we are just like everyone else. I was just thinking if Rush Limbaugh has friends are a family member has a disability and see if he like someone calls him that word

    February 8, 2010 at 8:08 am |
  17. Daisy21

    Sarah Palin may have written a few words on her hand for her speech on Saturday night, but Barack Obama still has a very weird reliance on teleprompters. I'm wondering if CNN covered at all the gaffe President Obama made at the National Prayer Breakfast? He repeated the word "corpsman" 3 times while reading off his teleprompter, and mispronounced the word 3 times. We have heard the media make fun of George bush and his problems with certain words. Why so little mention of how our "smartest President ever" had no clue how to pronounce this common word? Who cares if Sarah Palin had 3 words written on her hand? I'm also wondering why the media is making the leap that she is running for President in 2012? She is a young woman. If she has any interest in higher office, she has plenty of time to work on and hone her skills. Hillary Clinton didn't run for President until she was in her 60's.

    February 8, 2010 at 8:07 am |
  18. Gabriel Grimes

    The word "retarded" has been used to describe a multitude of different situations, things, processes, and people. The word itself means not fully developed, or a process that has been held back. This is not like a word that defines a nationality, or a religion.

    It is irresponsible to claim a word with multiple facets, means one thing and therefore no one can use it or by using it a section of society is offended.

    An example: If a person were to say that a short tree is "stunted". Will small people get offended, or what about stunt people?

    February 8, 2010 at 7:59 am |
  19. Grace Olson

    (sorry for the earlier post – still the wee hours out here on the Left Coast)...I use the word retard retularly but it is pronounced reTARD, not REEtard. You can use a strip of zinc to retard the growth of moss on your roof, for instance. Any use of the word REEtard is utterly and universally disparaging. Perhaps most of the people using the term are unable to put the term "developmentally disabled" into a coherent sentance.

    February 8, 2010 at 7:59 am |
  20. Martha-Lisa Flinsch

    As the mother of a child in the Autism Spectrum, I am so glad this story was run on CNN. My child has been referred to by the "R" word in public by strangers. What do they think that does to a pre-schooler's self esteem? Should I call them nuts? If CNN is going to address the "R" word, they should also address their own overuse of the "N" "nuts" word. Tossing around derogatory terms that refer to people with severe and persistent mental illness and brain disorders is just as bad. Neuro-Diverse people have a long way to go in the battle against stigma, prejudice and discrimination. If our leaders and the media are part of the problem, they are also part of the solution. I challenge you to cover the stigma of the " R" and "Nuts" words and wear a silver ribbon when you do it.

    February 8, 2010 at 7:58 am |
  21. frankie

    This is a word everyone needs to learn not to use, the meaning of this word changed for the worse over the years. As much as I already dislike Sarah Palin, I am really disappointed that she didn't want to criticize Rush Limbaugh for saying it, just Rahm Emanuel. Along with praising a man who posed nude in a magazine! Her supposed moral standards are nothing but politics. She doesn't get lots of things. She doesn't seem to know that President Obama agreed to talk to Republicans about tort reform. (Like all those people selling anti-public-health t-shirts for $20 who seem to be unaware that President Obama is not talking about national health anymore.)

    February 8, 2010 at 7:58 am |
  22. Leon

    I have a "Special Needs" cousin, he's the kindest, nicest person I know. I've NEVER associated retarded with him......however I do associated that word with the Tea Party, Britt Hume, people that take large Bonuses and then lay off people, organized religion, ect.
    The word has it's place........it's for "Normal People" that really aren't "Normal" judging by their actions.

    February 8, 2010 at 7:57 am |
  23. Austin

    In my opinion, we should continue to use the word. It is a formal English word, not commonly considered vulgar, meaning "regressive." It is simply an affront to liberty to ban a word, and we have not yet done as such. We have simply regulated words to where they are appropriate. Many new words are invented, regardless, and often they are more offensive. There is a fine line between protecting citizens and infringing on First Ammendment Rights. While I sympathize for anyone who has been deeply offended, we can not afford to pass legislation to help their self confidence. Everyone becomes offended and becoming a mature adult is learning how to cope malicious comments and self image.

    February 8, 2010 at 7:56 am |
  24. ALLAN

    My wife has been a Specuial Education Teacher for nearly 40 years.

    During that time the descriptive term for the people of lowest measurable intelligence has gone from "retarded" to "mentally handicapped" to "mentally disadvantaged" to "mentally challenged" and possibly several other words and phrases all meaning basically the same thing... not likely to become rocket scientists.

    Frankly, I find the controversy over what happens to be politically correct today silly and a huge waste of time. A few years from now, the current phrase will change, and the perpetual gripers will have today's term derogatory.

    Why not place more importance on helping those people capable of being educated to become relatively seff-sufficient and less time on arguing terminology!

    February 8, 2010 at 7:56 am |
  25. Jacquelyn Bryant

    I try to believe that I live in a loving world, but any word or words that are said in a mean fashion hurt us all. God bless the beautiful young man who has the strength to show us, once again, the value of all human beings. If Rush Limbaugh ever had the guts to apologize for any or all of his words of cruelty, it would certainly tie up a whole week of news television and/or radio.

    February 8, 2010 at 7:54 am |
  26. t moore

    I'm concerned whenever there's a movement to ban ANY word since clear communication is already in great jeopardy. The verb "to retard," meaning "to delay," "to curtail," or "to hold back" has important applications. For example, all of us want "to retard" government spending. To say that someone's or something's development is "retarded" provides a clear description of delayed or curtailed growth. Although I agree that calling someone "a retard" is sophomoric and could be hurtful, we need to educate ourselves as to all of the meanings the word encompasses and not throw the baby out with the bath water by banning it or any word in our lexicon.

    February 8, 2010 at 7:54 am |
  27. Savannah Jones

    Unlike the "N" word, retarded has a perfectly legitimate meaning. Firefighters use chemicals to retard a fire. So while it may be inappropriate to use as a noun, even if it is hurtful to a particular community it cannot be eliminated from our language. In the early '70's I worked in the mental health field and we used it in a non-derogatory way. Now no matter how it's used, it's wrong? Why can't we address real issues and stop this rename everything.

    February 8, 2010 at 7:51 am |
  28. Phil

    I understand that the "r-word" is a mean thing to say. But, calling for "banning" the whole word altogether is actually a little too extreme, have you guys ever heard of something called free speach?

    Ok, so it starts witht the r-word, then, all of a sudden, there will be this next word, and this other one. Next thing you know, we won't be able to say much at all because most of our vocabulary will be suddenly banned.

    Who will enforce this private (and public) speach censorship law? This is absolutely ridiculous!

    February 8, 2010 at 7:49 am |
  29. L. E. Burnette

    Yes, we should stop using this hurtful word. We should also stop using the other "R" word; "Redneck". Don't Y'all realize that using this word for those of us from the rural South is akin to calling an African American the "N" word? Larry in Alabama

    February 8, 2010 at 7:49 am |
  30. James

    So what's next.....

    The S word – Stupid...
    The D word – Dummie....

    When do we get enough of polical correctness........

    February 8, 2010 at 7:49 am |
  31. Gary

    In Canada, we have not used the term"mental retardation" for many years. It is much more appropriate and respectful to refer to "persons with developmental delays", with the emphasis on the person, not the condition.

    February 8, 2010 at 7:47 am |
  32. Aaron James

    The "R" word is a derogatory slur. It is inappropriate for a politician, a journalist or even someone in the media. Blacks don't want to be called the "N" word. Gays don't want to be called the "F" word. This is the same exact thing. Rush should grow up.

    February 8, 2010 at 7:45 am |
  33. Mark

    Retard:
    "If something retards a process, or the development of something, it makes it happen more slowly."

    The word is used for baking and can/should be used for the appropriate situations. Over sensitivity is retarding our culture.

    Using terms as a slur is insensitive, however words in and of themselves are not "wrong" just the context in which they are used.

    Juveniles need to be aware of inappropriate times/usages; but to "ban words" is much like burning books.

    February 8, 2010 at 6:52 am |
  34. julia

    I think it's more offensive to keep considering people who are MENTALLY CHALLENGED-RETARDED. Lets band the use of thinking our mentally challenged friends are retarded.

    February 8, 2010 at 6:48 am |
  35. Simon Halberstadt

    I always understood the word "retard" to mean "slow". In musical terms the word "retardando" was used to slow tempo. Even in my little town of Chardon, OH there are signs posted by the city that say "engine retarders prohibited". I'm not quite sure what an engine retarder is, but I assume it would be some device that would slow an engine. I did not hear the comment by Emmanuel but if it refers to politics I would assume he was speaking about the slow pace of accomplishment in the Federal government. That to me is an accurate assumption and has nothing to do with "political correctness".

    February 8, 2010 at 6:42 am |
  36. Bryan

    I think political correctness makes this country weak. We apologize for our every thought and utterance as soon as one person runs to the news to complain. I don't believe in apologies because they are meaningless. If you apologize for your thoughts it's basically saying not to trust anything you say in the future because you "didn't really mean it." I can take an insult over an apology because in that moment you meant what you said and I can respect honesty. All these people backstepping and apologizing for using the "R" word can't be trusted if they flake on their every word. At the time they made their comments, they meant to use that word. Would I use it to describe a "special" person? Not at all. In fact many special people are a lot brighter than the people who are being referred to right now by that word. It's all about word usage. There are special people in the world, but they aren't retarded. And I don't think I should miss out on learning about the true thoughts of my politicians just because a couple of people don't like to hear honesty whether it's mean or not.

    February 8, 2010 at 6:41 am |
  37. Angela Hunter

    The word RETARDATION is a legitimate term... using it in a derogatory context is what makes it offensive. I mean you could pull up a Thesaurus and pick another word that means the same thing, but seriously it is what it is. People just need to be more sensitive about how they use the word b/c there is a group of people that are associated w/ this term and it is REAL! It's not funny, nor is is unacceptable, but not using the word Retardation b/c it's offensive is ridiculous.

    February 8, 2010 at 6:37 am |
  38. RK

    Just where do we draw the line? How many words like the R word will we try to remove from our language, and do you really expect that their use will stop the day they are excluded? Could we say that people that use such words are 'idiots'.

    February 8, 2010 at 6:37 am |
  39. Gordatron

    I do not want to be rude, but since I have been growing up the word retard has meant many things! One being stupd. Two being dumb. And three being physically and mentally challenged? All relate to someone who is not functioning to the norm of society. This being said, there is a lot to talk about if you care what a normal canadian says.

    February 8, 2010 at 6:36 am |
  40. Kristen-Reno

    Just so sad...enough said..what we've come to...sad

    February 8, 2010 at 6:35 am |
  41. Kathy O

    Palin is proving herself to be as two faced as any other politician. Plus being afraid of Rush. I guess we really know now who's in charge of the Republican party!
    A word spoken about Democrats in private is a sin to be fired for, while a word spoken repeatedly on the radio about Democrats is fine with her, as long as it's done by her boss, Limbaugh? Typical Republican hypocrite!
    Funny! Run, Sarah, Run!

    February 8, 2010 at 6:35 am |