March’s Disability Awareness Month: Getting Rid of the “R” Word

You’ve seen the commercials. They started a couple of years ago with Special Olympics’ TV ads featuring hip-looking young people telling viewers that it’s not ok to use the “r” word. The “r” word is the derogatory term, “retard.”

During March, when we celebrate Disability Awareness Month it is important to remember that folks in our community are still trying to overcome the stigma of this offensive word. “Unfortunately, the word retard has a real life of its own… so, that’s why we needed to stop using the term,” said Esther Baldridge.

Baldridge, who is the superintendent of the Allen County Board of Developmental Disabilities, believes that, “Words become stigmatized over time… it still is very, very painful for the people we serve who have that term literally applied [to them.]”

But why do people grab a word and use it as a weapon to stigmatize an already vulnerable population? “The careless comment [such as] calling someone a retard, they [people] aren’t thinking,” said the ACBDD superintendent. They think they are being cute or witty…but they need to understand how much their words hurt people who legitimately have that label [attached] to them,” explained Baldridge

For me, the task of creating awareness about the plight of the intellectually disabled is personal. Whenever, I hear someone use the insulting name, “retard,” I cringe. Immediately, I am deeply offended as the visual picture of my mid-twenties nephew comes to mind.

For many individuals with a family member who struggles with some type of disability, they can instantly relate to the angst they also feel when someone makes an ignorant remark. After all, when we replace someone who some in society erroneously view as less than, with someone that we love, the picture changes instantly.

Diverse groups including lawmakers, school systems, and developmentally delayed individuals themselves have been pushing for change and heightened awareness for several years. Public campaigns like the one found on the Internet at encourages folks to pledge their support in never using the “r” word. “Spread the word to end the word. The word “retard(ed) hurts millions of people with intellectual disabilities, their families and friends,” according to the Website.

Sadly, there are individuals who take pleasure in hurting others. For example, simply googling the word, “retard” results in a plethora of Websites and available video mocking the intellectually challenged. Some of these comments and images are so vulgar in content that one wonders where these intolerant and ignorant citizens who make fun of others reside.

Yet, Esther Baldridge sincerely believes that if we are able to personalize the issue, we become more understanding and compassionate. “When you learn to know somebody on a personal basis… [you] see that person with all their strengths and deficits.”

Baldridge has spent her entire career assisting folks who are challenged by developmental delays. When I interviewed Mrs. Baldridge, her eyes seemed to shine with pride as she reminisced about the day in October of 2009, when the “MR” initials representing the words, “mental retardation” were removed from Ohio’s Allen County Board of Developmental Disabilities Administration building. Those letters were even buried.

“I really didn’t know how much it would mean to the people we serve,” said the ACBDD superintendent. Legislation initiated by the DD population in Ohio and sponsored by Senator Jimmy Steward elicited the change, which has also occurred throughout the U.S.

Nobody likes being called names, and a community of our intellectually challenged citizens finally said, “enough is enough” by requesting this change. “I think we have made improvements, but we still have a tremendous amount of work ahead of us,” said Mrs. Baldridge.

As family, neighbors, and friends of those facing intellectual challenges we know that there is an r-word that these individuals would really like to hear and to have from us. That r-word is respect.

In order to achieve this goal, ACBDD has a program referred to by the acronym, A.P.P.L.E., standing for Abilities Plus Potential Leads to Excellence. This free presentation for schools, churches, civic groups or meetings can vary from 30 minutes to an all day event using dolls, videos, literature, and hands-on activities to simulate disabilities.

According to, it is through education that we learn that we are “more alike than different,” and that every individual is “unique and special.” After all, to be treated with respect is all most human beings desire of their fellow man.

Christina Ryan Claypool is a freelane journalist and inspirational speaker. This column originally appeared in The Lima News in March of 2011. It is dedicated to my precious nephew, Andy, who makes the world a more beautiful place.