top of page
  • Writer's picturePeta

What do you do when someone says the R-word?

By popular demand, Peta outlines what you should do when someone says the R-word. Regardless if you have a disability or not, this word is very hurtful and should no longer be used in any circumstance.

Peta also gives the word context by giving you a short history of disability. The very dark history that it is.

You can ask Peta a question via:


You can follow Peta's personal account on Instagram @petahooke


Episode Transcript:

Peta [00:00:00] Hello, just before we get started this week, I just want to warn you, this one is a bit of a serious one that may trigger some listeners. If you're up for a pretty serious conversation about a very hurtful word, I suggest you wait till next week.

[00:00:24] Hello and welcome to The I Can't Stand Podcast, the podcast, answering your questions on what it's like to live with a disability. My name is Peta and every week I'm your host, I have cerebral palsy and I've had it since I was born. This week the question was a real doozy. Seems like you guys like the hard questions. If you'd like to ask me a question, there are three ways you can do so. One by my Instagram at @petahooke. That's @ P E T A H O O K E. By email at Or on my website, OK, without any further ado, let's get into it.

[00:01:29] This week's question was from Heidi. Heidi asked me:

Heidi [00:01:31] Peta, what do I do when someone says the R-word?

Peta [00:01:39] For anybody who doesn't know what I mean when I say the R word, this is Peta talking here, not Heidi. The R word, as in retard or retarded.

[00:01:54] So what do you say when someone says the R word? Firstly, approach the situation carefully, particularly if you don't know the person that said the R word, you don't know how they're going to react and you don't understand their background and their cultural upbringing. So I would tread carefully here. Your personal safety is the priority, it always should be. And while I appreciate you standing up for people with disabilities or even standing up for yourself, if you have a disability, please make sure you're doing it in a safe manner.

[00:02:34] After someone says the R word, I would suggest you count to ten, regulate your emotions and try and respond in a calm way. Responding in a calm and considered way, I believe, means the person who you're speaking to is less likely to become defensive. I want to make sure that you understand that I know that most of the time, at least in my experience, the R word is used in relation to the person speaking. They're not using it in context of disability itself. When it's directed towards a person with a disability, that's a totally different scenario. To me, using the R word towards somebody with a disability is no different to being in an out and out racist.

[00:03:34] So, for example, if the person said.

A person who said the R-word [00:03:39] Oh, my God, I feel so retarded, I locked my keys in my car,

Peta [00:03:44] I would respond to the person. Can you explain what you mean? What do you mean? That way, you're on the front foot, you're not being aggressive, you're just simply asking a question, asking them to reassert why they use the word. Sometimes I find the response is,.

A person who said the R-word [00:04:11] Oh, well, I'm just, you know, I'm an idiot for locking my keys in my car.

Peta [00:04:16] Again in that context when comparing the word retarded to idiot. It can be quite triggering for me.

[00:04:24] However, I normally follow with this statement. So what you mean by retarded or idiot is you feel silly that you locked your keys in your car. I prefer the word silly, and I think it's a great suggestion for all of you to use as an alternative, because silly can involve everyone, all of us can be silly. It's not a word that relates to one particular culture, race or ability, it's an overarching statement. If they sort of go back at you and saying.

A person who said the R-word [00:05:03] Oh, stop being the politically correct police.

Peta [00:05:07] I would follow back with that statement by saying, look, I understand there's been a lot of changes, particularly in the last 10 years. However, the R word is really triggering and detrimental to people with disabilities. And the reason for that is it harks back to the treatment that people with disabilities experienced throughout history, basically the whole of human history, the word retarded or negative connotations in and around disability has been occurring. And look, I'm not saying my approach is a fail safe way to make sure the person understands. But I feel by approaching the situation in that way. At least first of all, I've kept myself safe. I regulated my emotions and I've tried to put my point across in an educational way that is not judgemental, that might encourage the person to change their behaviour going forward. In the end, that's the goal, right? For everybody to understand why these terms aren't appropriate anymore.

[00:06:25] I've hit the books and done a little history research on the history of disability. I know I've already put a warning at the start of this episode, but this is some serious stuff, guys. So if this conversation is all triggering for you, I suggest you turn the podcast off and wait for next week. But I also think it's important that if you are up for hearing this conversation; to learn the history of disability and why the R word is so hurtful for people like myself. This is in no way a full explanation of the history of disability. I just wanted to give you an overview.

[00:07:13] I'm going to start right back at the beginning with the early Greeks and Romans, we're talking BC times, here guys. So the early Greeks and Romans were known to put their children with a disability out in the cold or thrown in a river to slowly die. So I would have probably died, day one.

[00:07:38] In the Middle Ages, so we're talking like 1500s now. People with disabilities were placed in cages. People believed that if you were born with a disability, you were filled with the devil, filled with Satan. Now I know I can get a bit wild when drunk Peta comes out, but I don't think I'm filled with Satan.

[00:08:06] The first institutions, as we know it to be now when 1600s. Built in France, and these were massive, they had six hundred to two thousand people living in these institutions. The idea was that it was meant to be, (and this point of view, it was from a Christian point of view) it was meant to be more humane and Christian to at least give them shelter, food and water. Except for some reason, the French thought it would be a great idea; they offered tickets to the general public so they could come and look at people with disabilities to gawk at them. This is very reminiscent to the freak shows that came along later on in history. People love to view difference, and if you think about it now, in society, people still love to stare. These old habits, societal habits, take a long time to die out.

[00:09:13] In the U.K., at about the same time, there were food shortages. So there was great encouragement for people with disabilities to be starved because we were seen as less then less human and therefore people who were born, quote unquote, normal, deserved more food rations and people with disabilities. So many people with disabilities in this time period starved to death.

[00:09:45] In the 1850s, definitions of disability started to come out and I won't bore you with them because they're very, very prejudicial and, you know, in today's eyes, absolutely disgusting. But that's where the word retarded came from. It was found by many psychologists that people with disabilities, there was no point to educate them, but just to simply give them life skills, because all people with disabilities, regardless of severity, do not have the ability to learn anything. And when you think about the education system, even today, there are still some special schools, quote unquote, special schools that still prefer to teach life skills over education. The potential for people with disabilities is still being stifled from a law that came out in the eighteen hundreds. Just crazy. The 1850s, things got a bit worse, if you can imagine. So there was a guy called Charles Darwin. And he was all about the evolution of man, the survival of the fittest. So when you're born with different abilities and less strengths in certain areas, you can imagine how many issues people with disabilities had around this time.

[00:11:22] The director of education in Australia in 1930 was in favour of segregation and sterilisation. That was in an official document of education in 1930. Up until the 1960s, there was a belief in society that people with disabilities were being well looked after in these institutions until Professor Blatt and a photographer called Kaplin went inside an institution. They photographed and documented the conditions and they called their peice "Hell on earth". After this, published society started to realise that institutions was not the solution. So institutions started to close and people like myself got to live with their family unit and be at least part of their family unit as their own little community. This fact coming up blew me away, right? It wasn't till 1980, only 40 years ago, that children with the IQ below 50 were allowed to go to school. Prior to that, there was a law that children with IQ is below 50 were not allowed to engage in education in Australia. Oh, my goodness.

[00:13:02] In 1992. Two years after I was born. Twenty nine years ago. Children were now permitted to go to a mainstream school if they desired. That just blows my mind that only 29 years ago, people with disabilities weren't allowed to attend a mainstream school.

[00:13:32] I hope that little bit of history has made you realise not only how embedded these prejudices are, using words like the R word represents so much hurt and harm that happened to people like me in the past. That word represents everything I've been fighting against and everything all people with disabilities are fighting against. To prove to people that we are equal. That we are not subhuman, that we deserve to live, be educated and be equal like everybody else in society.

[00:14:24] Thank you for listening to this week's episode. I hope you find it helpful and insightful. If you did enjoy the podcast, can I encourage you to write and review, if you listen on Apple podcasts. If you listen on Spotify, click that little heart or share the podcast with someone you think might find it interesting. It all helps. The more people that get to listen, the more questions I get to answer. And, you know, I love to answer questions. And quickly, before I say goodbye, I just want to say thank you so much for all your support. Because of you, the podcast was featured on Apple's new and noteworthy. This is a massive deal and it puts the podcast in front of more people. So from the bottom of my heart, thank you so much. Until next week bye.


bottom of page