by Deborah Leigh Norman

Having lived in four states around the country over the last dozen years, I have become proficient at moving and organizing. I put items in boxes with labels to make things easier for me. I have found that people often use the same approach with other people; they put them in boxes with labels to make things easier for themselves.

In our country, we have seen progress with rights for women and minority groups breaking out of the boxes society had established for them. Progress for those with disabilities is another frontier of civil rights. Having a disability is just one more way to be different and another labeled box to tear apart. There is forward progress, but there are times when I see, or, rather, hear a step taken backwards. It is when I hear someone use the r-word, retarded, in a belittling or pejorative way.

The term “mentally retarded” was originally a medical term used by doctors that had a specific clinical meaning. The word “retard” means delay or late. More recently though, the r-word has been used to insult people and used as a synonym for dumb or stupid. When used in this way, it reinforces painful stereotypes of people with intellectual disabilities as being less valued members of our society. This undermines the effort by so many people and elongates the time it will take for people with disabilities to be treated equally. Even when the r-word is not said directly to someone with a disability, it is hurtful to the millions of people who have a disability and the many millions more who love them.

As the mother of a child with a disability, when I hear the r-word, I feel punched in the gut and that what I do for my child and all the hard work he puts in everyday is devalued. Attitudes and language are intertwined and drive actions. Language choice demonstrates respect, and it matters.

When we receive a present, one of the best parts is not knowing what is inside. It would be much less exciting to open gifts if each box had a label on it listing the contents. Like everyone, people with disabilities are multifaceted. Let’s choose to look at all people as a gift, and not put them into a box, as we open our minds to truly see each person for who they are.

For more information please visit to learn how you can spread the word to end the word and take the pledge: I pledge and support the elimination of the derogatory use of the r-word from everyday speech and promote the acceptance and inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities.




About the Author

Photo by Deborah Leigh Norman Deborah Leigh Norman grew up in Delaware and later moved to Virginia, Louisiana, and now Indiana. She is enjoying the journey of living in different regions of our country as well as the journey of her heart becoming a mother and then the mother of a child with a disability. Deborah Leigh has a B.A. and M.P.A. from the University of Delaware. Come share your journey with her at



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