Seriously, it's time to stop using the R-word

Ask any good parent, teacher, coach or leader, and they will tell you that the words you use can have a deep and lasting impact.

They can inspire or they can cause considerable harm, particularly in cases where someone is already marginalised in some way.

That's partly why, as a society, most of us have recognised that the use of sexist, racist and homophobic language is plainly unacceptable.

However, when it comes to terms that either vilify or mock people with a disability, many have been slow to modify their behaviour.

The use of words like "retarded" to describe people, things and situations is not only insulting, but leads to the dehumanisation of some of our most vulnerable citizens.

And yet, it remains disturbingly common place.

In an extreme example last weekend, footage of a fight after an AFL game showed a man in a Melbourne guernsey punching an intellectually disabled Hawthorn supporter and shoving him to the ground. The Hawks fan, who admitted he had thrown a beer on the Demons supporter, told Melbourne's radio 3AW he did so after the man insulted him, calling him a "retard".

Over the past two years, AFL footballers Josh Caddy and Heath Shaw faced backlash after they were caught on microphone directing similar language at opponents.

But football grounds are far from the only places where some people still resort to using such words in a demeaning way.

Last year, chart-topping American singer Cardi B faced criticism after she chose to use the R-word to describe her own penchant for drama.

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of conservatives have become fond of the portmanteau "Libtard" as a term of contempt for a person with left-wing views.

Elsewhere, on work sites, in movies, public places and especially on social media, many otherwise intelligent people continue to use the slur as if it was without history, meaning or consequence.

As a noun, the R-word has its roots as a crude, blanket term for anyone considered "slow" or who had a disability.

It comes from a time when there was little to no understanding of conditions ranging from epilepsy, autism and Down syndrome to selective mutism, learning difficulties or simply a low IQ.

Even in this country, it was common practice to put a person with any one of these conditions, whether severe or mild, into institutions where they were often subjected to treatment far more inhumane than any prison.

The word has long been considered both dated and offensive, and has gradually been replaced in medical texts, documents and laws. Somehow, as an insult, it lives on.

On Tuesday, the website of the Australian campaign to end the R-word showed that it had been used on Twitter more than 122,000 times in the past seven days. That's more than 720 times every hour.

The question has to be asked, why? If you mean that something sucks, surely you can find a better, more descriptive word.

If you are trying to deride someone holding an opposing view, resorting to name calling doesn't speak well of your ability to argue and reason.

Using slurs like the R-word is not only disrespectful ... such language can also push people who may already be at the margins of society even closer to the edge, underlining a lifetime of being made to feel unworthy.

Some will wail about "snowflakes" and defend using it as "just a word".

However, this is not about political correctness or hurt feelings, but rather doing what is right and decent.

Using slurs like the R-word is not only disrespectful to people who already face social isolation every day, but also their parents, relatives, carers and friends. Such language can also push people who may already be at the margins of society even closer to the edge, underlining a lifetime of being made to feel unworthy.

Whether used intentionally or otherwise, the R-word and its variants denigrate people who are often among the most brave, kind-hearted and real individuals on God's green earth.

The time has come for us to leave them out of all put-downs.

We have moved on from locking up people wrongly considered "less than" in the dreadful asylums of the past.

But as long as we look the other way while people use a term that shows a blatant disregard for their fellow humans, it's clear society still has some way to go on the road to proper inclusion.

For more information, or to show your support, visit https://therword.com.au

Matt Crossman is an ACM journalist