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I Was Called the R-Word

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“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

This is a phrase we all hear as children when someone says something to us that is mean-spirited.  As we grow older, we realize that words DO hurt, and can pack a very powerful punch when used maliciously to dehumanize us.  

Last month, I was called one of the most offensive words you could utter to a disabled person – the “R-word.”  I felt that it was a very poignant moment to discuss on the blog, and the impact the derogatory slur had on me, and how I view those who use such inferiority tactics.  

The “R-Word” Incident

I shared Part 1 of the “Being Disabled, Kinky, & Into BDSM” series in a Facebook group I am a member of.  I started sharing posts in this group this year to allow those who may be interested in the disabled experience to read articles and gain perspectives they may not be exposed to.  Given the nature of this particular group, it does have a “bullying” flair, which is quickly noticed if you have been in the group long enough.  However, I had not experienced a negative reaction to the posts I have shared in that group until the incident occurred.  

By sharing such a taboo topic, I knew that there may have be some dislike due to those who are more “prudish” or “holier than thou” presenting.  I had received some great questions and dialogue about BDSM and what it entailed in the group that stemmed from the post, which both surprised me and allowed me to clarify a few misconceptions about the lifestyle.  Those who asked questions or provided comments were members of the group that typically were friendly and positive, from what I had seen of their group interactions, and a few personal encounters I have had.  

Of course, all good things must come to an end when someone decides that it is their duty to be negative.  At first, I had asked them to be polite, even if they did not like the subject matter.  Apparently this individual does not like being corrected or challenged, which I learned later that they have an ego problem from others who know of them; they proceeded to take my request to be adult and respectful personally.  

That was when they called me the “R-word” and that they did not want to read about the sex lives of “sad, disabled people.”  They then tried to “justify” why they said it – claimed that I went after them in my request for them to be civil, and that they had worked with disabled people, and never heard of them having sexual issues.  They then proceeded to have a “Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde” moment when they tried to play “nice” after they were called out by several group members for using the slur.  At that point, their ignorance showed clearly, and the offense had taken place – there was no way to backpedal to soften the blow.  

My Initial Thoughts & Reaction

“Did this <insert a series of expletives here> call me the R-word?”  

“Did that really happen just now in this group?”  

“Am I getting Punk’d in the most offensive way possible, when I was trying to keep a comment thread that was positive and informative in that same condition?”

The Processing of Being Called the “R-Word” As a Physically Disabled Person

I went through several mental processing stages as I digested what took place after it occurred:

Denial + Anger

  • How could someone stoop that low to say something so hurtful, especially when they are well old enough to know better?
  • Who the <expletive> do they think they are talking to me like that?
  • How are people actually sticking up for them when they were the one who went after me in such a gross manner?  
  • Is this the level of grotesque bullying this group tolerates?  
  • How could anyone think that using that word towards a disabled person is actually fine, and make excuses for doing so?  

Sadness

  • No matter what I try to accomplish in my life, is that what I will appear to be to some people:  a “R-word?”  Some crippled, insignificant person?  
  • I no longer feel comfortable sharing my work in this group, despite the fact that I have received positive feedback and support.  This is not the safe space for me to do so, and that really bothers me.  

After a couple of days of reflection, the final mental processing stage took place:

Acceptance

  • I know that I am not the “R-word” or any other offensive term that is used to belittle disabled people.
  • People who use such harmful language are trying to make you feel inferior when they are the ones who are inadequate.  
  • Not everyone may like me, but that does not mean I have to take being mistreated by anyone, and such behavior displayed towards me is unacceptable and inexcusable.  
  • Anyone who supports the usage of such slurs are just as ignorant and uneducated as the person who uses them.  
  • Everyone has Godzilla-size balls online, but would not utter a peep to whomever they are trying to hurt or degrade in real life – the internet gives people a false sense of superiority and power.

How Do I View Those Who Use Ableist Language?  

Personally, I view those who use ableist language, and discriminate against and harm the disabled, as pathetic, foolish, uneducated, and degenerates.  

It takes someone with an inferior view of themselves to try to make someone else feel less than – no person with a sense of purpose, self-confidence, and compassion for their fellow man would do something that they know is ugly.  

We as a society know that that word, in particular, is used to cast disabled persons as second class and sub-human.  That word, for the disabled community, is equivalent to the “N-word” for the Black community – there is no denying the intent for which that word is uttered by the offender.  Both words are used to ensure that the individual understands that they are different, and that their difference is considered to be vile.  The ironic thing is that I have been called the “R-word” before I have ever had the displeasure of being called the “N-word.”  The hurt and pure disgust I felt at that moment is what I imagine I would feel if someone white or non-Black person of color were to call me the “N-word.”  

When someone calls you something vulgar, it says more about them than it does about you.  They do not know how to communicate in ways other than attacking you for something you have no control over.  They resort to amateurish name-calling that is typically expected of middle schoolers; emotionally mature adults do not exhibit such unbecoming behavior.  They use such terms to dehumanize and devalue others, while failing to realize that such words strips them of their own humanness and gaining respect from their peers.  There were several in the group who were offended by the word whom they themselves are not disabled; these persons were those who had close interactions with disabled people, and were deeply disturbed that that word was typed in the group.  Many of these persons reached out to me, and shared how they were deeply saddened that the incident took place, and how they did not expect that kind of behavior from someone they knew personally or knew of by association.  Slurs like the “R-word” may be directed at one particular person, but they also have the ability to indirectly affect those who may witness the exchange.  That kind of transference shows just how impactful slurs like the “R-word” are, and why these terms need to be removed from our vocabulary as a society.

The Takeaways:  Educate, Inform, Empower (E.I.E. Principle)

I was determined to write this post to stand in solidarity with others who had the misfortune to experience this gross form of ableism and disrespect as I did last month.  We have to speak out against these incidences so that one day, they will cease to occur.  For those with intellectual disabilities, especially, this word has wounded so many for far too long; as a member of the collective disabled community, I have no patience or tolerance for anyone who uses this term, whether it is said to me or to my disabled brethren.  

Discussing what happened, and my reaction and thoughts, falls under my E.I.E. Principle – Educate, Inform, Empower.  In order for people to stop being bystanders when slurs like the “R-word” are said, they must be educated as to why their silence and ill-directed support of offenders are problematic.  This education includes informing individuals as to how someone may feel when they are made the target of the word, the deep roots of the word within the disabled community, and the fight to erase the word from society’s vocabulary.  The empowerment comes into play when we work together to extinguish the ableism that is affecting disabled people, and become ardent allies for equality, justice, and acceptance for all.  These incidences, though they are hurtful and painful, are teachable ones, and as an advocate and who educates within my work, I decided to transform a negative encounter into a teachable moment.  I want those who have been called the “R-word” to know that they are not alone, and should not feel subordinate because of someone else’s hatefulness; you are not what they call you – you are better than what they could ever be.  

Final Thoughts

How do you react when someone calls you an ableist slur?  What can be done to ensure that such terms are stripped of their power, and offenders are held accountable for the verbal attacks they hurl at disabled people?  

What can we all do to be a part of the solution, and not the problem in addressing ableism, and the way disabled people are viewed and treated in society?  Ramp your voice on this topic because it is one that is still prevalent within our community.

(Featured headline image:  Courtesy of HoumaWeekly.)

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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