Stop using the R-Slur


Slurs are a tough topic. They were once words that were widely used, and with this word in particular it was even a medical term. In fact, only in 2010 was the official term changed to “intellectual disability” by former President Obama. Many slurs are based in race, gender identity, sexuality, and religion, but the r-slur has a special place as being the most well-known and widely used slur surrounding people with intellectual disabilities. According to a Kantar study on social media posts about intellectual disabilities: “7 in every 10 of those posts are negative, and 6 in 10 contain a slur.” So why do so many people use this word, and why shouldn’t they?

When I first broached this topic with my mom, I asked if I should interview my grandparents about this topic. She immediately thought that they would not understand the idea of me talking about this word as a slur. To them, this term is solely medical and was broadly used without malicious intent. According to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, “It’s not that comparing or linking a person without a developmental disability and a person with one is bad, it’s that the societal assumptions which make this an insult… are bad and make using these comparisons as insults both possible and horrible”. In other words, there is nothing bad about having a developmental disability.  However, the societal notion that disabilities are bad is reinforced by language like the r-slur, the use of which implies that being seen as someone who has a disability is insulting – and no one’s unchangeable identity should be considered an insult.

So why is this word so widely used? Certainly, there are other slurs out there that are just as disgusting and derogatory, but most of these words come with immediate rebuke from the majority of society. This term, however, has a concerning level of normalization in society. Not only is the r-slur very commonly used- I myself have been insulted with this word many times- but there are variations of the word out there that I find to be a cheap attempt to get out of saying the whole word. When I spoke with my mom, she said that she didn’t hear the word a ton in school. She lived in both Michigan and Washington during her school-age years, and the most common usage she heard was from her cousins in Ellensburg (a city in central Washington State), who would say only the last four letters of the word instead of the entire term. The end part of this word pops up in a lot of popular terms. A word that I have heard quite often is “libt*rd”, referring to someone who leans toward liberal political views and usually from the point of view of someone who is not liberal. Generally, this word suggests that someone that is liberal is stupid. This is not the issue- political parties are bound to argue, and sometimes it will devolve into insults. The issue is that the continuation of the idea that to have a developmental disability is inherently negative and means that a person is stupid. 

The place that I have heard this word the most is unsurprisingly, at school. This is the place where I have been introduced to the most slurs and curse words- which I believe is true for many people. However this word in particular has been one I have heard way more than any other. Why is this a problem? Every school in the Northshore School District has developmentally disabled people, and as the student population of Northshore grows, so does the population of this group. This means more people every year that are hearing this word that equates their identities to stupidity. According to OSPI demographics, Northshore School District enrolled over 3,000 students in the 2019-2020 school year that identify as students with disabilities. This is an increase from 2014-2015 of 1,000 more students per year that may feel personally victimized by this term. In just Bothell High School alone, 10.5% of students that enrolled in our school last year identified themselves as students with disabilities. Also in Bothell High School, 10.3% of students that enrolled last year came with a 504 plan, which is a plan that allows a student with a disability to have access to different accommodations based on their individual needs. Many developmentally disabled people have these types of plans, as well as those with physical disabilities. 

Although the r-slur was once an acceptable medical term, over the years the term has evolved into a casual descriptor for anything bad or a synonym for “stupid”. According to Dr. Stephen B. Corbin, a former senior vice president for the Special Olympics, using a word that was once widely used to identify in intellectually disabled community as an insult “contributes to the dehumanization and stigmatization of others, which incites treating them differently.” Using this term, even without malicious intent, is highly damaging to and perpetuates negative stereotypes about those with intellectual disabilities. 

For years many in the disabled community have been speaking out against the use of the r-slur. If you would like to read more about the word and how it affects people with intellectual disabilities I highly encourage you to check out the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign at  or at