My beautiful sons are why you need to stop using the word 'retard'.

I write everything on my to-do lists. If it’s not listed it simply won’t be done.

When I was asked to write this piece, my hand shook as I added “Write about the word ‘Retard’” to my work list. And even now, typing the R-word on my keyboard, a rush of blood surges through my body sending tingles to my fingertips, my throat tightens and eyes water.

Ondine and her son, Dov.

So if it’s so hard to write, hearing it spoken feels like a punch in the gut. But I’m a decent actress and don’t react, because it’s often from the mouth of friends. People who are otherwise thoughtful, considerate and caring.

“OMG, he’s such a retard!” girlfriends declare, reciting a frustrating incident with a colleague. Or, “Don’t be a retard” they quip to one another.

“Don’t say that!” I want to shake them. But I know they’re saying it carelessly, without thought. I know, because I used to say it myself.

That was before retard became my life and my love.

I have twin boys with intellectual disabilities or ‘mental retardation’; and yes, they’re the ‘retards’ the insult intends.

Ondine and her son, Lev.

Their brains don’t work normally. They can’t do a bunch of stuff. But they’re better than awesome and I love them fiercely – just like all mums raising kids with disabilities. These mums also bristle every time they hear the R-word. As do the kids and adults with special-needs who understand what it means.


Words. They’re used in violence and in peace. They create perspective and feelings which generate actions that lead to results.

The feminist movement knew this –the effort they invested into gender-based language reform was immense. ‘Sexist language reflects sexist social practices’, they successfully argued.

There are many words we no longer utter because they are too hurtful. These no-go ones are too fraught too repeat here. They’re racial, homophobic or religious slurs, you know the kind.

Dov in his walker.

The R-word is derogatory and offensive to the population that most needs encouragement and support. There’s nearly 700,000 people with intellectual disabilities in Australia and that doesn’t include the families and loved ones who care for them.

The global movement to rid it from the English language is growing – there’s Facebook groups, YouTube videos and a campaign, called The R-word, supported by 200 NGOs, that’s attracted over half a million people to make a pledge. Parents of a young girl with Down Syndrome fought and won to remove it from legislation in their USA state. That’s how much they hated it. In 2010, President Obama even signed it into law under the girl’s name, Rosa.

But, for a moment, let’s take a big picture. Why do we use disability words as an insult in the first place?

Watch this beautiful video END THE R-WORD. (Post continues after video.)


People are different. Diversity is what makes the world wonder-full. Millions among us possess vastly different, atypical capabilities: intellectual, physical, sensory, processing and more…

When we perceive this difference as lack, as worthy of insult – spaz, schizo, cripple – it’s our disability, our inability to accept the ‘other’. We can’t see beyond our arrogant perception of perfection; it’s our problem, not theirs.

Everyone with intellectual or other disabilities brings their unique soul into our world and their extra-ordinary qualities. We are lucky if we have the chance to know them.

So, for my kids, Rosa and all the others… Let’s be mindful of our language and the role it plays. Yes, words are able to change the world. And our own worlds can be made or broken with their power.


Ondine’s memoir The Miracle of Love (Allen & Unwin 2013) chronicles her journey with her twin boys with special-needs. You can buy her book here.

Ondine is Co-Founder & Managing Director of Voiceless, the animal protection institute, and currently writing a book for young adults.


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