When Nurses Use the "R" Word

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    Nurses maintain a very positive image in the community. How does this image evolve when nurses are seen using the "R" word, or other derogatory comments? Where should we draw the line?

    When Nurses Use the "R" Word

    I remember my first day on the job. I was sitting in education classes at a well respected children's hospital in the city. I felt lucky. Not only did I get to work at an amazing place dedicated to helping children, but from the looks of it, I was also going to be working with some amazing people. As I looked around, I saw smiling faces, brilliant minds, friendly chatter. These people were great, these people were awesome! These people were--wait, what did that girl over there just say?

    Did she just say the word...retarded?

    I reflect back on this day often. Since hearing one of my fellow co-workers utter the word "retarded" in a derogatory way, I have come to realize that many nurses that I work with use this as an insult. It seemed as if I was hearing the word being used more often than ever before. Now, I am no fool. I know that people use this word in a negative way all the time, but working in a children's hospital (plenty of kids with developmental delays and disabilities) confused me more than ever. How could we be taking care of kids with delays and still allow a word like that to echo through the hallways--even in private? Where do we draw the line?

    Should nurses be expected to watch their language, even when not at work? Should they choose their words wisely even in a casual conversation with friends? Is the break room off limits for less than desirable talk? To me, the answer was already clear. I stand strongly against using the "R" word to shame others, regardless of who it is. It definitely hurt my heart to think of all the amazing patients I have, and to know that one day they might be called "retarded" by someone who doesn't understand the impact of such a word. It hurt me even more to think that that person could be a fellow nurse.

    Some might say that we live in a world that is becoming too "politically correct." That we should be able to say what we want without being criticized. That society has gone too far in policing what we should and shouldn't say. I see the word "retarded" lumped into a collection of words that seems to be in an endless tug-of-war in terms of usability. Should we make a big deal out of it? Should we just ignore it? Does limiting any word ever do any good? It's a time when lines appear blurry and limits seem unclear. Where exactly does the "R" word fall and how does it apply to nurses?

    It didn't take me long to realize that it doesn't matter whether or not you should be allowed to say a word or not. What matters is that everything you say will effect you and the perception of you as a professional. You may think that others cannot hear or see you use certain words, but you could be very wrong. I speak out now when I hear someone say the word "retarded." Sometimes I get the sarcastic eye roll and a half-hearted "sorry" from the offender. To me, that word isn't OK for anyone to use, nurse or not. I will gladly take the awkwardness if it means I can make someone think twice before they say that word.

    I must have assumed that nurses were in agreement not to use this word. Sadly, my own career has proven otherwise. So, is it political correctness run rampant, or just common courtesy? I'd love to hear your thoughts!
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  2. Poll: Is it OK for nurses to use the "R" word?

    • Yes

      14.81% 8
    • No

      55.56% 30
    • Indifferent

      29.63% 16
    54 Votes

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    About Kate_Peds

    Kate_Peds is a registered nurse and the author of nursediaries.com, a career and advocacy blog for nurses. She works at a children's hospital and loves taking care of kids.

    Joined Nov '16; Posts: 33; Likes: 168.

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    25 Comments

  4. by   quazar
    I have a developmentally disabled child, and while the word offends me and makes me internally flinch/wince whenever I hear it, I just save my breath and don't bother correcting people. It's not worth the fight, it's not worth my time, and I'm so, so tired of this battle. I have family members who still use that word to my face, knowing how I feel about it. People simply don't care if it doesn't directly affect them. I've learned that. When you're the mother to a special needs child, you grow a thick skin, otherwise it would surely be death by a thousand cuts within the first year of their life.

    As for correcting coworkers, I've heard some pretty insensitive things uttered by my coworkers as well, and the best thing I can do is live by example so to speak.
  5. by   RNrhythm
    I do no think there is anything wrong with using the word 'retarded' when clinically appropriate, such as, "the patient is mentally retarded." I do think it is incorrect to use it as a pejorative, as in, 'this new policy is retarded".

    However, I am open to new and improved wording. Because the "R" word has become touchy, I recently described a patient as a developmentally delayed adult. That got some eye rolls and the receiving nurse jotted "M.R." on her notes.

    I just now did a tiny bit of research. Should I be saying, "intellectually disabled?"
  6. by   Emergent
    I work in the ER, we're a rough and ready bunch. One doc particularly likes to drop F bombs.

    As far as retarded, that would be rather mild. F-ing idiot would be more accurate.

    Of course, moron, idiot, imbecile also used to be clinical terminology as well, so the powers that be came up with "retarded".
  7. by   datalore
    I have mixed feelings. Nurses should indeed be held to high standards, but we're humans too, and I bet a good chunk of us swear like filthy pirates when we're not on the clock. Should we be expected to remove words like that from our vocabulary? I don't know. I feel like everyone's offended by everything now, but maybe there are a few words ALL people (not just nurses) should remove from their brains. A few other choice examples also pop to mind. I'm not sure you'll find a unified front among nurses to ban pejoratives both in and out of uniform. But you should be able to politely speak one-on-one with a coworker who makes offensive statements and expect them to at least listen respectfully. Being human, they may not change their behavior, but I wouldn't take that personally either.
  8. by   SunnyPupRN
    Whether we like it or not, "retarded" has become a distasteful word to use. At one time, it simply meant "delayed" or "late in learning," innocent enough. But the behavior associated with using the word became ugly, and so the language use followed. It even became politicized, with words like "libtard," in a deliberate attempt to insult and denigrate people on the left side of the spectrum. I think "cretin" used to be a clinical term too. It will be interesting to see how current language evolves. But for the moment, my opinion is that a nurse or doctor who chooses to use this word shows a lack of understanding of verbal boundaries, empathy, and professionalism. The popular belief is that the word is derogatory and demeaning, and when you are in a position of power, being paid to treat vulnerable patients, that is not the time to promote your freedom of speech, especially knowing that it is perceived as cruel and abusive.
  9. by   Emergent
    A cretin suffers from cretism, intellectual and physical problems resulting from thyroid insufficiency in the mother or infant.
  10. by   Buyer beware
    Quote from SunnyPupRN
    Whether we like it or not, "retarded" has become a distasteful word to use. At one time, it simply meant "delayed" or "late in learning," innocent enough. But the behavior associated with using the word became ugly, and so the language use followed. It even became politicized, with words like "libtard," in a deliberate attempt to insult and denigrate people on the left side of the spectrum. I think "cretin" used to be a clinical term too. It will be interesting to see how current language evolves. But for the moment, my opinion is that a nurse or doctor who chooses to use this word shows a lack of understanding of verbal boundaries, empathy, and professionalism. The popular belief is that the word is derogatory and demeaning, and when you are in a position of power, being paid to treat vulnerable patients, that is not the time to promote your freedom of speech, especially knowing that it is perceived as cruel and abusive.
    You nailed it.
  11. by   BSN16
    Should nurses be expected to watch their language, even when not at work? Should they choose their words wisely even in a casual conversation with friends?
    [FONT=Open Sans, verdana, sans-serif][COLOR=#000000]I disagree about this part. Although i find this word distasteful and don't use it, an individual should be able to act and say as they please in privacy. I'm a nurse not a nun. I That being said that if it were to become public, or said during work, it may have repercussions. [/COLOR][/FONT]
  12. by   morelostthanfound
    Although I am fairly liberal, certainly not a prude or possessing delicate sensibilities, I have noticed that crude/vulgar speak is much more common today and seems, almost fashionable in some circles. I, personally, am not offended by colorful language (not in the presence of clients/patients), but understand those that may be and do think that it is somewhat unprofessional and unbecoming to the person-just my opinion though!
  13. by   Ann_
    Quote from SunnyPupRN
    Whether we like it or not, "retarded" has become a distasteful word to use. At one time, it simply meant "delayed" or "late in learning," innocent enough. But the behavior associated with using the word became ugly, and so the language use followed. It even became politicized, with words like "libtard," in a deliberate attempt to insult and denigrate people on the left side of the spectrum. I think "cretin" used to be a clinical term too. It will be interesting to see how current language evolves. But for the moment, my opinion is that a nurse or doctor who chooses to use this word shows a lack of understanding of verbal boundaries, empathy, and professionalism. The popular belief is that the word is derogatory and demeaning, and when you are in a position of power, being paid to treat vulnerable patients, that is not the time to promote your freedom of speech, especially knowing that it is perceived as cruel and abusive.

    I could not have worded that better!
  14. by   Julius Seizure
    I don't think this has anything to do with nurses specifically. It is no longer considered a socially appropriate term to use - for anyone. I don't think the standard for nurses is any different here.

    Also, I thought this was an article about something like how nurses shouldnt say "the Q word" (quiet), but I couldn't figure out what R would be --- relax?? I was way off!
  15. by   Julius Seizure
    Quote from RNrhythm
    I do no think there is anything wrong with using the word 'retarded' when clinically appropriate, such as, "the patient is mentally retarded." I do think it is incorrect to use it as a pejorative, as in, 'this new policy is retarded".

    However, I am open to new and improved wording. Because the "R" word has become touchy, I recently described a patient as a developmentally delayed adult. That got some eye rolls and the receiving nurse jotted "M.R." on her notes.

    I just now did a tiny bit of research. Should I be saying, "intellectually disabled?"
    Yes, the 'correct' terms now are developmentally delayed, and intellectually disabled.

    Developmental delay/global dev. delay is what you use for people who are too young to do IQ testing or other standardized measurement of skills.
    After about age 5-6 years old, when they can undergo cognitive testing, intellectually disabled becomes the new diagnostic term.

    Comprehensive Evaluation of the Child with Intellectual Disability or Global Developmental Delays (AAP)

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