In honour of Down Syndrome Day, clean up your language

By Allan Bradbury
Staff Writer

Next Monday, March 21, is World Down Syndrome Day. I have an older sister with Down Syndrome so this topic touches me deeply.

3/21 is Down Syndrome Day because Down Syndrome is caused by the fact that there are 3 copies of the 21st chromosome

For a long time the term Retard(ed) (hereafter referred to as the R-word) was used to refer to what we now call an intellectual disability, which Down Syndrome is. But a strong movement has taken place over the last number of years to eliminate it from vocabulary in medical, intellectual and common language, as it should be.

When my older sister, Sheila, was born in 1988, my great grandmother was still with us. When she found out my sister had Down Syndrome she was very sad. For most of my great grandmother’s life, people with Down Syndrome or other intellectual disabilities were sent to institutions and lived their lives isolated from main-stream society.

Thankfully, times have changed and most people with intellectual disabilities are given the chance to flourish and grow with other children instead of being closed off or hidden from society. Still, the R-word has persisted for a long time, referring to those with cognitive disabilities, even in medical and scientific circles.

“Mental Retardation” was originally introduced in the 1960s to refer to people with intellectual disabilities and in the 60 years since has crept all too commonly into everyday language for some people.

In 2009 an organization was founded to Spread the Word to End the Word. Since its inception the group has collected millions of pledges to help end the R-word. The group has even partnered with Special Olympics to help spread the word and have been able to make presentations in schools to show students that this word is not ok.

Special Olympics says: “The R-word, also known as the R-slur, is a hurtful term that remains prevalent throughout social media, according to a Kantar Social Listening study. The research shows that when social media users are posting about people with intellectual disabilities, 7 in every 10 of those posts are negative, and 6 in 10 contain a slur.”

In 2010, President Barack Obama signed Rosa’s Law which replaced “mental retardation” with intellectual disability in US Federal Laws.

Rosa Marcellino is a young lady with Down Syndrome from Maryland. Her family inspired their state senator to launch the campaign to remove the R-word from legal language in the US.

Many people understand that the R-word is offensive to people with intellectual disabilities but still use it in their regular language to refer to other things. Things which they find annoying, dumb, maybe stupid or perhaps things they don’t agree with. If that’s the case, use one of these other words instead of a word that can be deemed offensive to a massive chunk of society. Most people wouldn’t go around using the N-word to express your frustration with a given situation, would you? It’s about the same thing.

Instead, consider what you’re about to say before you speak, if you’re going to say something that could be offensive to anyone, maybe don’t say it, or think of a nicer way to say it.

If you’d like to hear more about my experiences growing up with a sister with Down Syndrome you can read another piece I wrote while in journalism school for CBC in Newfoundland and Labrador. You can find that article here: