The Word I Hate More Than Anything

There’s a word that makes my stomach drop, my fists clench, and my eyes sting. You probably guessed it…the “r-word.” I think often about the right way to teach kids about the meaning of that word and how to respond when I hear kids use it. In the majority of cases, whether it is used by an adult or a kid, it is not meant to hurt anyone’s feelings. But it still does.

As a special education teacher, I do my best to collaborate with the general education teachers so that my students can learn in inclusive settings whenever possible. The other day, in science class, one of the students who is typically-developing said, “That question is so easy…it’s retarded.” One of my students, who has a disability, was sitting right next to him. As usual, my stomach dropped, my fists clenched, and my eyes stung. My response to the student was, “We do not use that word in this classroom. It can hurt people’s feelings, and I do not want to hear you say it again.”

Later, I was talking to my team’s general education math teacher, and I told him about what happened. I said that while I know it was not meant maliciously, I was upset to have heard that word at all. I told him that we need to determine a way to talk to all of our students about what the r-word means. Even though it is not always meant to intentionally hurt others, it does. 

My co-teacher’s response shocked me. He declared that I can’t get so upset every time I hear that word. He said, “They’re only 12. There’s no way you can expect them to know any better. You need to just get over it.” I was absolutely speechless.

I agree that we can’t expect them to know what that word signifies, but that doesn’t excuse it. It is our job, our responsibility, to teach them what it signifies. As an advocate for my students, I have every right to be upset every time I hear the r-word. It is offensive, even when it is not said to offend.

In hindsight, I wish I had taken more time to explain to the student what the r-word really means, instead of just admonishing the student. My plan is to develop a school-wide lesson about the meaning of that word. I will ask my administration to send it out to all teachers and ask them to teach their students about why we should not use it. If we really want inclusion to work, we all need to advocate and care for every single child. If we do our jobs correctly, our students will all feel safe and welcome at school, like they are equally celebrated members of their school community.

–Written by Elise Hopkins, KIT Blog Writer/Editor

Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at


  1. Torrie Dunlap on October 9, 2014 at 8:44 am

    Elise- YES! Beautiful post and I really commend your effort to develop the school-wide learning opportunity around this. I was at a meeting with a respected leader in our community last week and she used the r-word, casually, in conversation. I was flummoxed and wish I would have been prepared with a better response. I will be eager to see what you create for your school.

  2. A Day to Remember | KIT BLOG on November 26, 2014 at 9:40 am

    […] of you may remember my post a few weeks ago about hearing the r-word in school. I teach middle school special education, and […]

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