R-word: No excuses but if you’re sorry make your apology count

By Catia Malaquias

Another high profile Australian sportsperson, this time an AFL footballer Heath Shaw, resorts to the “R-word” to describe another person in a disparaging way.  Again, captured on mass reach TV media. Although, predictably, some seek to defend the indefensible as “political correctness gone wrong”, an apology soon followed extended to anyone else who took offence to my comments”.

Who is this “anyone else”?

Does it include my son? A seven year-old boy with Down syndrome, an intellectual disability.

Does it include me as his mother?

My son is not yet able to articulate why this word hurts people with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities, but John Franklin Stephens, an adult with Down syndrome, put it this way for the Huffington Post:

“… THE R-WORD HURTS. You don’t have to aim the word directly at me to hurt me and millions of others like me who live with an intellectual disability. Every time a person uses the r-word, no matter who it is aimed at, it says to those who hear it that it is okay to use it.  That’s how a slur becomes more and more common.  That’s how people like me get to hear it over and over, even when you think we aren’t listening.

So, why am I hurt when I hear ‘retard’. … At best, it is used as another way of saying ‘stupid’ or ‘loser’.  At worst, it is aimed directly at me as a way to label me as an outcast – a thing, not a person. I am not stupid. I am not a loser. I am not a thing. I am a person.

It hurts me to think that people assume that I am less than a whole person. That is what is so awful about slurs. They are intended to make their target seem smaller, less of a person. People who live with an intellectual disability do not have an easy life. We have to fight to understand what the rest of you take for granted. We fight for education. We fight to live among the rest of you. We struggle to make friends. We often are ignored, even when we have something to say. We fight so hard to be seen as whole people. It hurts so much after all that struggle, to hear you casually use a term that means you assume we are less than whole.”

Why aren’t the apologies squarely directed at the specific group in our society that is offended and hurt by the R-word – people with intellectual disabilities? Why do we not recognise that each person with an intellectual disability and those around them are personally offended by the use of the R-word – why do we pretend or hope that the use of the R-word will not cause offense beyond the immediate target – but if it does – then we apologise – to that limited and contingent extent?

These “sorry if anyone was offended” apologies serve to attribute offense to the discretionary value-systems of individuals in society – rather than to the indefensible words.  They suggest to the offended, people with intellectual disability and those around them, that the actor still doesn’t understand why the use of the R-word is so offensive.

If someone who should know better described elite AFL footballers on mainstream TV as “f … R …s” would the AFL accept a “sorry to the extent anyone was offended” apology?

In this case, the footballer’s apology was perhaps better than most – it was prompt and went on to recognise its general offensiveness:

“There is no place for comments of that nature on or off the football ground. It was an offensive remark that I should never have made and for that I apologise.”

My point is that apologies for the use of the R-word must be directly aimed at the specific group in society that is most hurt – that shows an understanding of why the term is offensive and assists in educating the broader community.

We have some way to go.  This year’s Down Syndrome Day social media campaign was directed at changing cultural attitudes to the euphemism “special needs” because the way we talk about disability matters.  But the R-word isn’t a euphemism – as John Franklin Stephen says, it is a slur aimed a minority group and in Australia we still have work to do to stamp out the R-word and make many in our community understand why its use is not acceptable, no qualifications no excuses.

[Cover photo © Rick Barrett]

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