Have you ever used the “R Word?” I sure hope not. It’s disrespectful. It’s offensive. It’s derogatory. (And it honestly doesn’t say much about you if this is part of your vocabulary). Why do I feel so strongly about this? Well, because you’re insulting my big brother, Andy.
Andy is 40 years old and was born with Cerebral Palsy. He is the twin to my sister, Angie, and is a big part of my life. Growing up, I didn’t think any different of Andy because he was who he was—just my brother to me. He couldn’t communicate or walk, but there is plenty he can do. He loves classic cartoons- like Scooby Doo and Muppet Babies (which is making a comeback!)- he loves dogs (who often love him back). He loves to shake hands or hold hands with his favorite people. His disability is a part of his identity and a part of our family, it’s important. But it doesn’t define him. I remember being little and would wonder why people would stare at him or look away quickly in public, and it made me angry. There is no such thing as “normal,” so why would people stare this way?
The staring came mostly from older adults. I have found that kids would ask honest questions about Andy. Our family was happy to answer them. Disability is a part of human diversity, it’s natural to ask questions- what’s important is that we answer them honestly, respectfully, and emphasize that all human difference is treated with dignity.
When I got to high school, I remember hearing many students using the “R Word.” As I got to college, I heard more people say it (including friends and extended family). It shocked me that people would use the word, seemingly ignorant of the history it carries with it. People with disabilities have a shared history of marginalization. Historically, they have been hidden from society: institutionalized, excluded from public spaces and schools, and have been the subject of horrific, institutional abuse. Using this word downplays that history. Most importantly, people with disabilities have made it clear- the word is dehumanizing. Continuing to use it robs people with disabilities of their power and control to address a word that has so long marginalized them. It’s time to listen, and it’s time to stop using it.
I decided for myself one day that I had enough and I was NEVER going to let anyone use that language around me ever again. Anytime I heard someone say the “R Word,” I would kindly let them know that it was offensive and tell them about Andy if they didn’t know him.
Now as a mom, I see how my 2 boys are accepting and loving towards Uncle Andy because they have grown up with him and this is their uncle. They ask innocent questions about him that I’m happy to answer. They don’t know any different like I didn’t as a child, but I’m doing my job to make visible that difference is good. We want our boys to smile and acknowledge someone who is different from them, to say hello and be the first person to step up and assist someone if needed (as simple as holding open a door).
This is my big brother, Andy, and his roommate Christopher. They are the sweetest guys ever and if you ever see them or anyone like them out and about…I hope you would smile and say hello to them because they will probably share their big, sweet smiles with you. They love to go out to eat, and they’re both loving uncles to their nieces and nephews. They are human beings and deserve to be acknowledged. They deserve respect like anyone else.
You can take the pledge to end the word here: https://www.r-word.org/