We need to talk about the r-word

Opinions

By Sarah Buchlaw

CW: Offensive language, discussion of ableism

The University of Puget Sound’s Campus Films raved about last month’s showing of “Baby Driver” on their Facebook page: “With incredible chases and a killer soundtrack, this is one you won’t want to miss!” Unfortunately, “retarded” was hurled six times within the first seven minutes of the film.

Baby Driver is a film about a getaway driver named Baby, who is so immersed in his personal soundtrack that he rarely speaks. The film opens with a lengthy car chase, and then follows Baby through the city while he picks up coffee for the criminals he is working for.

When he arrives with the coffee, one of the heisters, “Griff,” asks the crime boss about Baby: “What’s his deal? I mean is he, uh … retarded?” The word is used  several more times in the next scene.

The R-word used to be a scientific term for those with intellectual disabilities. Dictionary.com lists its two definitions as “characterized by a slowness or limitation in intellectual understanding,” and “Slang. Stupid or foolish.” The dictionary’s page on the R-word marks it as “usually offensive.”

The anti-R-word movement “Spread the Word to End the Word” points out that “over 43 U.S. states have passed or introduced legislation to remove ‘mental retardation’ from laws. …” There was even a federal law in 2010 that banned the R-word in all federal policy. So why aren’t people listening?

The R-word is used not only as an outdated term to describe people with intellectual disabilities, but also as a generic insult akin to “stupid,” — which is offensive, plain and simple. Insulting somebody by comparing them to a person with an intellectual disability is cruel, and the normalization of such an insult must end.

I spoke with Leslie Sieleni, a “Spread the Word” advocate, Special Olympics coach of 10 years, “Fill the Heart” event founder, and, most importantly, mother of Sean. Sean is a high school senior with Down syndrome. His experience as someone with an intellectual disability (and someone who has been called the R-word) has made him a fierce advocate.

It has hard to believe that Sean is only a high school student given his miles-long resume of achievements and advocacy work.

Sean is a Special Olympics participant and global messenger, former member of a group called “the pals” that advocates for inclusive education, host of “Spread the Word” events at his school, collaborator on “Fill the Heart” events and creator of multiple R-word awareness videos. In his mother’s words, “He’s pretty awesome.”

When Sean hears or is called the R-word, Sieleni says he combats ignorance with patience and explanation. Sieleni says that those whom Sean confronts almost always listen and apologize. Sean teaches one person and one experience at a time.

Recently, Sieleni took Sean to a live production of “Hairspray,” his favorite movie musical. They were disgusted to find that the R-word — never uttered in the movie — was said in the performance. “We were mortified,” Sieleni said. She and Sean immediately sent a letter to the theater, explaining why the word is inappropriate.

“It hits so close to home,” Sieleni said about the use of the R-word in everyday language, modern television and film. “It hurts my heart so much because … it makes me feel like, you know, my son is less than, you know, anybody else.”

We could argue that when Griff grimaces at Baby and whispers his question about the getaway driver being “retarded,” he is genuinely asking if Baby has been diagnosed with an intellectual disability. Even if this were the case, the United States Federal Register notes that “mental retardation” was replaced with “intellectual disability” in September of 2013. Baby Driver was made in 2017.

The more likely scenario in my opinion is that this scene is designed to make an audience laugh. Griff uses the R-word to belittle and embarrass Baby, an act which the other characters and movie-watchers are meant to find comical.

Every time we witness scenes just like this one and do nothing or laugh with the rest of the audience, we are contributing. We are part of a system that devalues and dehumanizes people with intellectual disabilities until or unless we speak out.

Terms like the R-word describe people as disabled first, humans last. Starting conversations about the harm of the R-word and learning to use what “Spread the Word” calls “people first” language are two things everyone can do, whether they have a disability or not. People-first language means calling somebody “a person with a disability” rather than “disabled.”

A Chicago-Sun Times review claimed you “wouldn’t dare leave your seat because you wouldn’t want to miss a frame …” of Baby Driver. I walked out around minute 17 of this film and you should, too. We can make a statement by leaving movies like Baby Driver or, better yet, by refusing to present them in the first place.

Remember: if you are describing somebody with an intellectual disability, the R-word is a medically incorrect way to do so. If you are insulting somebody with or without a disability, the R-word is an offensive (and comically weak) choice.

As Sieleni says, “If you’re going to use the word … just don’t.”

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