‘The R-Word:’ Getting rid of the word for good

WASHINGTON, N.C. (WNCT) – An outdated word that makes some feel uncomfortable, the “R-word,” which typically refers to those with intellectual disabilities, can be derogatory, hurtful and offensive to many people.

In a two-part report, 9 On Your Side spoke with several people in the East who are speaking out on the importance of getting rid of the word for good, as well as organization that is helping those with disabilites find their place in the workforce.

One of those people working to eliminate the R-word for good is Amy Craft, an Exceptional Children’s teacher in Washington for 20 years.

Amy Craft (left) speaks with WNCT’s Courtney Allen.

“I have children with autism,” Craft said. “I have children with multi-handicaps.”

One thing she doesn’t have is any R-word students.

“The word should not be used,” Craft said. “Actually, the word has been taken out of any legal documents.”

That came after President Barack Obama passed Rosa’s Law in 2010, changing the medical term “mental retardation” to ‘intellectually disabled.’

Yet, seven years later, it is still seen in headlines and heard in everyday conversation, whether it is directed toward an individual or used to describe a stupid action.

“I think it’s because the kids that might use it, learn it from an older generation,” Craft said.

Two of Crafts’ students, Clayton and Lawson, fit together like pieces of a puzzle.

“Hugging and loving on each other, wanting their picture taken together,” Crystal Woolard, Clayton’s mom, said.

Clayton (left) and Lawson (right) are an inseparable pair.

Pamela Smith describes her son Lawson as a “Dennis the Menace.” But she says for her “perfect little boy,” it was tough from the beginning.

“The doctor wanted to keep him and when he came back in and told us why, he just kept saying the R-word,” Smith said. “Mentally, he would say ‘mentally,’ and the ‘R’ word, and he kept telling us everything (her son) would not do. He would never do this and he can’t do that, and he won’t be able to do this, and he won’t live to be this age.”

Woolard had the same experience with Clayton.

Doctors told her he had just months to live.

However, the two boys are ten now.

Over the years, through programs like ACCEPT and ExCEL, they met other children with different abilities, like twins Jonathan and Elizabeth Willis.

Jonathan and Elizabeth Willis are both freshmen in high school.

They are your typical high school freshman.

“I go to school about everyday wearing a collared shirt,” Jonathan said. “So I can dress to impress for them girls at school!”

But they aren’t treated like everyone else.

“One girl is scared of me coughing on her,” Elizabeth said.

They hope to be accepted.

“Treated me with some dignity, and respect,” Jonathan said.

“Like I was a normal person, and not in a wheelchair, like the other girls, and do normal stuff with me, like the other girls, like they don’t push me over, they don’t push me away,” Elizabeth said.

Brenda Willis, the twin’s mother.

“I have had my daughter come home and say, so and so said ‘Hey’ to me in the hallway, and that was the highlight of her day,” Brenda Willis, the twins’ mother, said. “Because she was so far removed and separate from others.”

Their mom says as time has gone on, things have gotten worse for them.

“When they were little, it was, ‘Oh, they’re cute,” or ‘Oh, they’re funny,’” Willis said. “As they grew older, it turned from ‘Oh, they are cute’ and ‘Oh, they are so funny,’ to ‘I don’t want to stand next to you; I don’t want to sit next to you.’”

Clayton and Lawson are just in fifth grade, and their moms worry kids will get crueler with age.

They hope to educate people about those different abilities so people will understand them.


Pamela Smith (left) and Crystal Woolard (right) hope to spread awareness of those with different abilities.

“We are all different. Just because we look different, it doesn’t mean that we are less,” Willis said. “Our kids have much to bring to society and the community. They have a lot to bring.”

“You shouldn’t call them the R-word,” Woolard said. “They are more than just a name. They are not that. They are super intelligent people who are loving, and if you just took the time to meet them and spend time with them, you would realize you are missing out on so much of life by just not having them in your life.”

Watch the second part of our special report, which focuses on the efforts of an organization to place those with disabilities in the workforce, here.

Trillium, the mental health service in Greenville, provided 9 On Your Side with a guidebook for appropriate word usage, which you can find here.

9 On Your Side is also compiling a list of resources available for those with disabilities which you can find below:

If you are aware of a resource that can be added to this list, email newsdesk@wnct.com.


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