How many of us have been present when someone unexpectedly uses the R-word? It’s like getting punched in the stomach. You feel sick and angry at the same time. How painful for everyone to have to hear that cruel slur, particularly those with loved ones who have a developmental disability. It is so unnecessary that it defies logic why people still feel compelled to use that hateful word.

Exactly where is the logic in using language that you know causes others pain? How can that be considered appropriate? What does that say about us as human beings that we are willing to hurt innocent people to get noticed? Are we so desperate for attention that we are willing to try to lift ourselves up at the expense of others?

And what about the onlookers who actually find this word appropriate? Why do they enjoy seeing other human beings reduced to some kind of archaic stereotype that was never true to begin with? When someone uses this word, and a person reacts to it approvingly, they are both behaving in an insensitive, thoughtless and inexcusable way.

Individuals with developmental disabilities do not want to be insulted. They are well aware of the connotation that word carries. They know they are being singled out for abuse. They know they are being disrespected as a human being.

No one wants to be embarrassed or feel humiliated because of something that is beyond their control, but, more importantly, they know they deserve dignity and respect. People with intellectual challenges rightfully believe that they should not be the punch line of a sick joke.

It is difficult to understand why this particular segment of the population is still singled out for verbal abuse when other groups are not. Slurs about ethnicity, religious faiths, and sexual preferences are curtailed because of the backlash from society at large.

And yet someone who wouldn’t make a crude joke about a small child who is black or a teenager who is gay thinks nothing of insulting and hurting an innocent person who happens to have a developmental disability. What is the difference? Where is the distinction? When you intentionally hurt anyone, it is wrong. To pick on a group of people who want nothing more than to be accepted as equals is unacceptable.

While it is true that people have the right to free speech, we also have the right to protest what they say, and we have the right to protect our friends and loved ones who may not be able to speak up for themselves. Perhaps it seems easier to pick on a group that is perceived to be unable to defend itself in the same way as other minorities, but that doesn’t have to be the case.

A large percentage of those who have developmental disabilities are more than capable off voicing their displeasure at being verbally attacked and degraded for no reason, and for those who may have difficulty giving voice to their feelings we can act as their advocates to ensure that their opinions of this type of language are given quickly and firmly.

If people feel compelled to single out those with intellectual challenges for bullying and disrespect we must respond in kind and single them out for their limited thinking and poor behavior. We must make it clear that their use of the R-word will not be tolerated and that if they will eliminate that language from their vocabulary we will all benefit by becoming a more tolerant and inclusive society.

Everyone has the right to fully participate in all areas of life. No one should be left out because every person is an equal member of the human family – without exception. An individual who lives in a group home has the same rights as a person living in a gated community and who see nothing wrong with using a word that hinders the ability of 3% of the population to find acceptance in society.

It is important to understand that what we choose to say conveys our attitudes. If someone is willing to be cruel and use the R-word, they are demonstrating their complete lack of understanding for the men and women who have struggled for decades to have the right not to be insulted for the life they courageously lead.

Some claim that words are not harmful – but that is not true, and freedom of speech does not allow a person to say just anything. For example, an individual cannot verbally threaten the life of an elected official no matter what they think about their political ideology. They may claim they are “only words” but those words can lead to their arrest.

In the workplace, we are not allowed to use offensive language regarding someone’s gender or ethnicity. If we are convinced we have that right, we will soon be looking for other employment. So why do some still believe that it is permissible to verbally degrade individuals who had no more choice in being born with a disability than a person has in choosing their race or sex?

Ultimately, we are each responsible for how we treat other human beings. We can decide to accept people for who they are. We can learn to appreciate each person no matter what they can or cannot do. We can learn to value the humanity of everyone. We can understand that no one has the right to judge or label anyone else.

We would not want that to happen to our loved ones, and it is certainly not right for us to do it to others.

It would be wise for those who are so quick to use the R-word to stop and take a moment to be thankful that they even have the gift of speech. Not everyone does. Millions of people would love to be able to express themselves clearly and easily, but instead, they have challenges that make it difficult for them to be understood.

If these individuals were suddenly to have the gift of articulate speech it is hard to believe that they would waste a single word hurting others for no reason. Instead, they would use their voice to communicate about what truly matters in life which certainly includes being kind, considerate and compassionate to others.

There is not a single reason to use the R-word, but the 4.6 million American citizens with developmental disabilities have every reason – and the right – not to hear it.

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