It's time to stop using the 'R' word

Shaun Micallef on "Mad as Hell'.

Shaun Micallef on "Mad as Hell'. Photo: Mark Rogers

“What are you F*cking retarded?”, ran one of the punchlines on Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell, which screened on the ABC on April 2. As the crowd laughed uproariously at the suggestion that the well-known comedian may be mentally disabled, the hearts of family, friends, carers, and colleagues of anybody with a disability, and most importantly any viewer with a disability themselves, collectively sank.

Those concerned with issue of disability will be totally unsurprised that a prime time television show on the state broadcaster ran this joke. Use of the ‘R’ word is pervasive in Australian media and amongst the broader public. It is equally unsurprising that at no point in the production of the episode did it occur to any of the cast or crew that they were broadcasting an offensive word, with demeaning and slanderous imputations directed at people with disabilities. The fact of the matter is that the use of the word ‘retarded’ to describe anything stupid, unappealing, uncoordinated, ill-conceived, or simply bad, is utterly ingrained in the Australian vernacular.

The problem is, of course, not exclusive to the state broadcaster. In an article celebrating ‘cricketing insults to aspire to’ in November last year The Age sports editor placed a sledge that amounts to ‘your kids are retarded’ at the top of the list. What a feel-good read that was for parents of children with disabilities. The examples are plentiful and they often fly under the radar of all but the people directly affected by them.

Whether it be on the street or in the media it is unthinkingly permitted to demean those of us who are least deserving of rancour with a throwaway comment or witless insult.


When a friend and social justice advocate wrote in to the ABC to complain about the use of the word ‘retard’ as a punchline, she was greeted with the response that will be familiar to all who take a stand against bigotry of any type; “we didn’t mean it that way”. This response is often true, and fine when coupled with an apology and commitment to avoid future use. The ‘R’ word will often spring from the mouths of genuinely empathetic people who have never been forced to make the connection between the word and the effect it has on those marginalised by it. Most will quickly apologise, and often thank you for your correction, it is, after all, embarrassing to realise that you have unintentionally caused offense.

Some, however, will immediately revert to the same tired arguments used to defend hateful and offensive words everywhere. Unfortunately the ABC Audience and Consumer Affairs representative took this path in response to the complaint. After reviewing the complaint the ABC found that they had used the word ‘retard’ to mean ‘fool’ and thus it had not contravened either section 7.1 or 7.7 of the ABC’s code of conduct, which commit the broadcaster to in turn avoid content that is likely to cause harm or offence, and avoid the unjustified use of stereotypes or discriminatory content that could reasonably be interpreted as condoning prejudice.

If a representative of the ABC believes that the use of the ‘R’ word does not cause harm or offence I would suggest that they have never had to see a person with a cognitive disability return home in tears because they had overheard the word used as a casual insult at their workplace. If they believe that the equivocation of a word used to describe the mentally disabled and the word ‘foolish’ could not reasonably be interpreted as condoning prejudice then they are simply not thinking about it hard enough, and most importantly not consulting the people who they claim that this does not effect.

Australia has taken great strides in the way it treats people with disabilities. The popular support for the National Disability Insurance Scheme demonstrates that as a nation we care about the quality of life of people with disabilities. A child with a disability is no longer immediately dehumanised in this country. It no longer occurs that a doctor in a public hospital openly advises a young mother to simply drop her newborn baby at an institution, forget about him and ‘have another one because this one is retarded’ as happened to my mother in the 1980s.

It is time to take a further step in our progress towards creating a society that is accepting of and accessible to people with disabilities, and remove this offensive, demeaning, and harmful word from our popular lexicon.  Despite the defence of the use of the ‘R’ word from the ABC itself, when the executive producer of ‘Mad as Hell’ was informed of the damage caused by broadcasting the offhand insult she acknowledged the oversight and offered an apology. Individuals do change their behaviour when they are informed. An apology is not required from Australian media outlets for their past failures, what is required is a commitment to adhere to their own existing policies and lead the way in ending the propagation of a derogatory word that targets those in our society who are often the least capable of speaking up in their own defence. Where the media leads the public will follow.