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Reject the R-word, unless you’re talking respect

March 14, 2012

Jill Pertler

Slices of Life Columnist

The good news included in this column might be old news to some of you. I certainly hope so. My "news" (that shouldn't be newsworthy anymore) has been decades in the making and I thought we'd already crossed the finish line.

Then, last week, I heard someone refer to something as being "retarded," and I realized we still have a lap or two to go before we are done with the race.

First, I'd like to tell you a little about my Aunt Dorothy. As the youngest of 13 children, she relished being in the spotlight – especially when singing, which she loved to do. Dorothy enjoyed birthdays, country music and an occasional beer. She wasn't afraid of hard work and she loved practical jokes. She was kind with a bit of a stubborn streak. As members of a reserved German family, Dorothy taught many of us about the joy of hugs. She was loved and loving.

There's one more thing. Dorothy happened to be born with Down syndrome.

Throughout her life, many people tried to define Dorothy by this one characteristic. Because they simply saw her as mentally retarded, they missed out on all the other traits that came together to make Dorothy the unique, spunky and wonderful person she was.

I think we all possess at least one characteristic we'd rather downplay to the world. I have an ugly thumb. It is an eyesore – thick and fat. I was born this way.

When I was a kid, I worked to hide my thumb, because I feared people would make fun of it, or me. Worse yet, I feared they'd define me by this one trait that I didn't choose and could in no way change.

Not long ago, the famous model and actress, Megan Fox, was exposed as having the same type of thumbs as me. It made headlines: Megan Fox's mutant thumbs – color photos and live at five! Never mind her talent and beauty, we were ready to define Ms. Fox by her ugly thumbs.

Why do we do this? Why do we attempt to label people by characteristics we (or society) perceive as negative? I don't want to be the ugly thumb lady (or even the lady with ugly thumbs). Someone else doesn't want to be the guy with the temper or the kid without athletic abilities.

In the case of people born with cognitive disabilities, we've taken it a giant step further. The word originally used to provide a clinical definition for their condition has morphed into a slang expression for all things negative.

Imagine the characteristic you didn't choose – and one you are unable to change – being a universally-known, demeaning term.

In 2008, the Associated Press struck "mentally retarded" from their stylebook. It is no longer an accepted phrase to use when writing about people with intellectual disabilities or cognitive impairments. In the same year, the Special Olympics launched the website, to combat the use of the word in question.

That was four years ago. Here we are today. I heard the R-word used last week. I think I can. I think I can.

There is no arguing the facts. The word I am referring to is disrespectful. It is offensive. It is derogatory. Why not cut it from our vocabulary? Good question.

Since the beginning of time, words have been used as weapons. Sometimes we throw daggers without even thinking about what we are saying and who we might be hurting. I don't want to be defined by my ugly thumbs, short legs, hair color, lack of directional skills or any other single characteristic that contributes only a tiny portion to the total that makes me who I am.

I said this column contains good news, because awareness is the first step toward change. As a society, we are aware of the need to alter the way we use the R-word. That's good. Now we've got to go out and actually do it. That's even better.

Every person who pledges to avoid the R-word is helping all of us take a step in the right direction. It is a step toward allowing each individual to be more than our physical, mental or emotional traits and leaves us free to be simply Joe, Mike, Dorothy, Megan or even just Jill. I'll give a thumb's up to that.

Follow Slices of Life on Facebook. Jill Pertler is an award-winning syndicated columnist and author of "The Do-It-Yourselfer's Guide to Self-Syndication" Email her at; or visit her website at