Most of us have said it at least once, in some form. “Dude. That’s retarded.” “What a retard.” These phrases are attractive for usage, like most other socially unacceptable vulgarities, because of their powerful effect. When we want to emphasize something we feel passionate or strongly about, many of us tend to veer toward “bad words” or any other type of vulgar language that seems to draw attention to the subject.

Theoretically, there may be no problem with using such “bad words” other than the fact that using them more and more regularly diminishes their shock effect. The problem is that uttering some of these phrases is not a victimless crime. The word “retarded” is perhaps the most hurtful of all these words. I propose each student, or other person, reading this article to take it upon himself or herself to be more careful about avoiding using the word “retarded” in a derogatory way. Using the R word is hurtful to many groups of people.

We Maimonidean high school students are very proud of our tolerance and compassion toward the needy. I think it is fair to say that the average student at Maimonides would be much more hesitant to use the N word around black people or people with black friends than the R word around people who have special needs or whose friends have special needs.

From being involved for a few years in Yachad, I have developed close friendships with many people with all sorts of disabilities. To them, and to people like me who are friends with them, using the R word in any derogatory context, whether directed toward a person with special needs or just casually to a friend who has made a boneheaded mistake, is extremely offensive.

The special needs community is a minority just like any non-white ethnic group community is. Just like we would be wary of using derogatory names for these groups, so too we should recognize the hurt we cause others when we use the R word and stop using it as a slur.

The hurtfulness of the R word, however, is much more than it simply being a derogatory word for a group of people– it degradingly generalizes. As I hope is obvious, not all people in the disabilities community have the same disability. Some have autism, others blindness or deafness, some Cerebral Palsy, just to name a few. By referring to everyone in this group by the same name, “retarded,” we are essentially taking away each person’s humanity. We are saying that they are not individuals with their own personalities, strengths, and weaknesses, but rather “slow” or “retarded,” chronically and irreversibly inferior. People with disabilities are not inferior. They may be different than us, but we are different than us too. Not one student at Maimonides has the same personality and challenges as another. So too people with special needs are distinctive individuals, not part of some “other,” defective bloc.

What this issue comes down to is how much you care. It is certainly convenient to ignore this article and to keep using the word “retarded” as a slur. But what I hope you all know now is that doing so does not just hurt people with disabilities. It hurts every member of the special needs community, myself and probably many of your friends included. If you care about us, please be more careful. Do not use “retarded” as a slur directed at any person, with or without disabilities.

This article originally appeared in Maimonides School’s student newspaper, Spectrum. The Yachad club at Maimonides is spearheading a campaign at school this month to “End the Word.” The goal of this effort is to stop the usage of the word “retarded” as a slur, and to promote general sensitivity toward people with disabilities. Yachad-affiliated students at Maimonides, Gann Academy, and the Binah School are running such campaigns, which have included selling bracelets, signing a pledge to stop using “the R word” in a derogatory way, and developing videos on special needs activism and advocacy.


Daniel Schwartz is a senior at Maimonides School in Brookline. Among his many other hobbies and interests, he has been involved for the past three years in New England Yachad.  Daniel writes, “Our local Yachad club began as a small group of Maimo students who would go together to events within the Jewish community with a handful of people with disabilities. After a few of us attended Yachad’s National Leadership Shabbaton two years ago, we became committed to helping transform our Yachad chapter. With the support of Liz Offen, an inclusion expert hired as the Director of New England Yachad, our chapter grew to more than 250 participants– students and adults, people with and without disabilities, within the broader Jewish community.” Contact New England Yachad at NewEnglandYachad@ou.org    Tel: 646-628-7003

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