The ‘R’ Word: Language does matter

The ‘R’ Word: Language does matter


In the Ottawa Sun on Wednesday, Anthony Furey wrote a column titled ‘A lobbyist by any other name …’ in which he sought to denigrate lobbyists and the politics of language by which some re-fashion themselves as ‘government relations’ experts.

But he tracks the “history of their linguistics,” to use his phrase, by drawing a parallel with efforts to end the use of the ‘R’ word to label certain people and actions as deficient in some way. I won’t use the full word here; we all know what it is. It hurts too many people to hear it and to see it in print.

Almost universally, the commentary on this article on the Sun website and in social media was how offensive, demeaning and disrespectful Mr. Furey was in his use of the ‘R’ word. It’s as though he anticipated such overwhelming reaction.

In his article he dismisses efforts to remove use of the ‘R’ word from political and cultural discourse as ‘political correctness.’ That’s the question we need to take up. Does language matter? Does how we name ourselves and the world make any difference? Are social justice struggles to redefine our identities in more humane ways, stepping stones to a more inclusive society? Or simply histrionics?

For thousands of years people with intellectual disabilities have been denigrated, violated and rejected. In the 20th century, the Nazi regime made them a target and applied its methods. In the 21st century, the genetic technology revolution threatens the same outcome, but by sanitized means. Expunge the life pre-natally, it’s cleaner. Language does matter.

Throughout the centuries language has been used to organize rejection, often murder; then used to legalize it and produce an ethics to justify those actions.

Look at the “ethicist” Peter Singer, who argues there’s no need to use chimpanzees in medical experimentation when it can be done more justifiably on mentally “r**ded” people. If we didn’t have the language to separate human beings in such a fashion, we couldn’t build such a repulsive ethics.

When Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed in Birmingham in 1963, he wrote in his famous letter from the jail, to those who challenged his impatience for justice: “When you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’— then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

People with intellectual disabilities, their families and advocates are also impatient. We are impatient because two thirds of Canadians reject inclusion of children with intellectual disabilities in regular classrooms.

Education laws for decades cleaved the population into children defined by the ‘R’ word and the rest of children, the latter seen to be deserving of public education, the former not.

We are impatient because only 26% of working age adults with intellectual disabilities are employed, and over 75% live in poverty. We are impatient because too many people with intellectual disabilities become ‘nobodies’ in others’ eyes, which helps to explain the rates of abuse that are higher than any other population group.

We are impatient because we have so many stories to tell of people with intellectual disabilities who make extraordinary gifts and contributions to their families, communities, schools and workplaces, stories that don’t seem to get heard.

Mr. Furey is right. There’s a history of linguistics. You can trace it in blood. But we could change it … by ending the use of the ‘R” word.

Michael Bach is executive vice-president of the Canadian Association for Community Living, a national federation of over 40,000 members, 400 local associations and 13 provincial/territorial associations working to advance the human rights and full inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities (

You can find the original article here –

One thought on “The ‘R’ Word: Language does matter

  1. Melissa –

    I’m slowly working on Issue #13 of Spiritroots Communications….Canada’s Independent Spiritual Voice. Slowly because I have the flu & Fibromyalgia. Should be up late spring/early summer.
    It’s diverse, it’s democratic & I’m a pro-Life Leftie, mother of one beloved son who is challenged both by autism & brittle diabetes, yep – he’s just human like every other human being. One talented musician but more essentially a magnificent person – his life unborn & born always cherished.
    Like to include your work under my Advocacy Col – may I have your permission please to insert your site info?
    Everything to do with Spiritroot Communications is volunteer based.
    Love for life, there’s considerable diversity, & keeping the debate going, questioning everything – while making dynamic, positive changes in attitude, behaviour as well law – that’s what it’s about for me. That means connecting with every aspect of society. I don’t need to convert the converted.
    The enlightened need to spread “the light” to the secular as well religious =spiritual maturity.
    Think about it & get back to me. Yes, I get your emails & thanks.
    Keep up the great work Goddess. Love your spirit.
    My people were suffragette Christian Socialists/CCFers from Ottawa Centre. They were pro-Left & pro-Life then.
    Issue #12 with recent issues are still online.

    warmest regards & many thanks – from the Spiritual Centre>Left,
    Carole Payne
    Chrisitan Social Democrat
    Spiritroots Communications
    or Goggle Spiritroots Communications
    Cambridge, Ontario

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