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Perfectly Human by Margot Starbuck: Movie Night, The “R” Word and True Confessions

"What? Since when did tard become politically incorrect?"

I felt confused when I heard these words fall off the lips of a character in the 2005 movie, The Ringer, starring Johnny Knoxville. I wasn't surprised it was coming from Hollywood. I was shocked, though, that the movie had been recommended by a friend whom I respect. That it was produced by Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver only confounded me more.

Several years have passed since I first saw the movie and on Friday night a friend and I watched it again. In the film, sleazy "Uncle Gary" decides to rig the Special Olympics by entering his nephew Steve, who has no diagnosed intellectual disability. In the course of the film Steve is "found out" by the precious new friends he makes at the Special Olympics. And even though the film educates and enlightens and inspires and has a warm sappy ending, I won't lie: it was still pretty hard to hear the "r word" tossed around for entertainment.

Over the weekend, I started to realize that I don't know how the "r word" impacts my own teen and adult friends with disabilities. The community we share, Reality Ministries, has been so purposeful about emphasizing our friends' and children's abilities that disability, loss, grief and the rude opinions of others haven't gotten a lot of air time. Honestly, I didn't know if my friends knew what the "r word" even meant.This isn't to say they haven't heard it. In the research study I conducted in my minivan, I learned that an eight-year-old friend uses it as an insult and one educator uses it to describe her class when they're being unruly. Yet even though the word is clearly in circulation, I still wondered if—at school, or church, or home or Special Olympics—my friends with disabilities had ever had the opportunity to talk about it.

I asked a friend who's worked in a L'Arche community if they ever discuss "the word." She confessed that she didn't know. I phoned one mom of an eighteen-year-old son to ask if he was familiar with the word. She told me that even though he wears a shirt from the Spread the word to end the word campaign, he still might not know.

I'd been invited to share a brief message at Reality Ministries, and I was itchy to hear from my friends. I stood before fifty of them and gently peeled back the dressing from the wound that affects us all.

After chatting briefly about the unkind words people use around the size or color or ethnicity of others, I queried, "Have you ever heard someone use an ugly or unkind word that has to do with someone having a developmental disability?"

Lots of hands went up.

"Can someone tell me what word you're thinking of?" When he raised his arm, I pointed to Danny, sitting in the front row.

Quietly, he offered, "The r-word."

Suspecting that some in the room might not pick up on the reference, I hesitantly asked, "Dan, can you say out loud what that means?"

The shocked look on Dan's face reminded me of a professor asking a student to curse in class.

In a low voice, he dutifully replied, "Retarded."

I was immediately stabbed with the conviction that I'd just asked him to commit a crime much worse than cursing.

I repeated the word once, into the microphone, and confirmed that that would be the last time we'd use it.

"Can anyone tell me what people mean when they use that word?" I asked.

When Jen raised her hand, I gestured for her to share.

"They say it to make someone feel down," she explained.

The arm of my nine-year-old son, still sweaty from soccer practice, shot up.

"Abhi, what do you think people mean?"

He offered, "They're saying you're stupid and dumb."

Theo raised his hand.  After communicating with his interpreter friend Sheila, she explained to the larger group, "In the deaf community we put the letter ‘r' to our forehead to put someone down."

My friends knew exactly what the "r-word" meant.

In the short time we shared together, we talked about how we can work together as truth-tellers who confirm, to others, that every individual has been created in God's own image  (Gen. 1:27).

When our evening ended, I posted myself at the door, to hand each exiting friend—with and without disabilities—a little flyer with more information about the movie and the campaign, that they could share with their families or group homes.

One woman, wide-eyed, confirmed, "I'm going to do a Sunday School class on this with teenagers.  I've heard my son use the word and he doesn't have any idea what he's saying."

Another woman remarked, "I have an older friend, with a sister who's disabled, who uses the word.  I absolutely hate it."  Then she gently added, "I hated hearing it said out loud tonight."

One older man, who lives in a group home, quietly shared, "They call me fat."

A teenage boy eagerly explained, "I just stand up for myself.  I have Aspergers.  When people say stuff, they don't know what they're talking about.  They're ignorant."  Then, with a grin, he added, "They think someone like me can't get the girls, but they don't know."

Band-aid peeled back a bit, the r-word exposed to air and light, the conversation has begun.


  1. The Ringer movie (DVD has comments from Tim Shriver) (Warning: rated PG-13 for crude & sexual humor, language and some drug references!)
  2. Stop the "r-word" campaign & resources
  3. Johnny Knoxville & Eddie Barnabell interview

Margot Starbuck is the author of Unsqueezed: Springing Free from Skinny Jeans, Nose Jobs, Highlights and Stilettos, and The Girl in the Orange Dress: Searching for a Father Who Does Not Fail. She contributed the first Perfectly Human post: Transparency.

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