What Happened When A Radio Talk Show Host Used The “R” Word On Air

This post contains graphically offensive racial and ethnic slurs that are not a part of my vocabulary…I am using them to illustrate a point. I am deeply offended by the use of words that disparage or diminish any group of people.

Words…what power they have.

The words we choose to use can open a dialogue or shut one down; they can make a friend or an enemy; they can forge a bond or create a divide.

This morning, local radio station owner Michael St. John was hosting his daily morning talk show when he unintentionally ignited a firestorm by his repeated use of the “R” word. I didn’t hear it myself but one of the parents in my program did, and she called me. She was hurt and outraged. She said, “You are our voice…please speak for us” so I called the station to see if Mr. St. John would speak with me. We talked for nearly an hour and I think both of us came away feeling positive.

On-air, Michael relayed the story of two separate events that happened to him yesterday that involved two people with special needs, one who worked in a grocery store and the other at a fast food restaurant. In both instances, the person with special needs was unable to perform the job duties they had been assigned. In both instances, everyone involved had become frustrated – the people with special needs and the customers they were tasked with serving. Michael explained to me that he was trying to ask a general question…is there some sort of governmental mandate that is requiring businesses to hire people with special needs even if they aren’t qualified for the jobs?

I should mention here that Michael’s radio station is a conservative talk station, which helped me make sense of his “big government interference” theory. I should also mention that there is no governmental mandate to hire people with special needs and that I strongly encourage businesses to give jobs to people with special needs when they can. We have two employees with special needs who make valuable contributions to our organization each day.

In both of these instances, the person with special needs had difficulty making appropriate change for a purchase. Michael wondered why they were put in the position of operating the cash register if they weren’t skilled enough to do so, which is a valid question. Personally, I think the inability of some fast food workers to make change has more to do with our failing school system and our minimum wage than it does with having special needs but that’s a political ball of worms that I don’t care to open in my blog.

People didn’t hear Michael’s question or understand his point because all they heard was his choice of words…retardedretardretarded afflictions…and his repeated use of “them” and “those people.”

When I asked him about his use of these words, he was adamant in his intention that he used these words to describe the diagnosis of the person and did not mean to cast aspersions on them. And I was stunned to hear that Michael actually has a step-daughter with an intellectual disability. Turns out, Michael is not offended by the “R” word as a parent and did not seem to be aware that its use is no longer deemed appropriate.

I wondered how a person – especially one who has a family member with a disability – could be so oblivious to the fact that the “R” word is no longer acceptable but I reminded myself that he lives in a small community in North Alabama, which could explain a lot. Rednecks can be slow to catch onto trends.

Ouch…that stings because I, too am a redneck from North Alabama.

When I tried to explain to him that the “R” word is inflammatory and negative, he was a bit defensive in his stance that you can’t eliminate a word from the dictionary just because some people find it offensive.

Here is one thing Michael said to me (paraphrased):

People with retarded afflictions shouldn’t be put in jobs that don’t match their skill set.

So I asked him to substitute other offensive words in this sentence and see if he thought it would be acceptable to say them live on the radio, like this:

Faggots/niggers/chinks/kikes/dagos/wet backs/rag heads/crackers shouldn’t be put in jobs that don’t match their skill set.

I think a “lightbulb” went off for Michael.

The surprising thing was that the longer we talked, the more I liked Michael, even though I was primed to take his head off. He truly didn’t intend to offend people with special needs or their families. He truly intended to simply ask what he thinks is a valid question. He is truly grateful for the job his step-daughter has and knows that she takes pride in having a job she can do independently and well. He truly wants other people with special needs to have that same employment experience- he doesn’t want them to be placed in jobs that are inappropriate for them because he truly hated to see two people with special needs becoming frustrated when they were unable to be successful in their assigned tasks.

Michael said to me, “When a door slams in your face, a window will open and I think this happened today so that you and I would have this conversation.” He’s promised to issue an apology/clarification on air tomorrow and has invited me to be his guest on his show in September, an invitation I’m happy to accept.

I may not agree with his politics or enjoy conservative talk radio but he’s not a bad guy…he just made very poor word choices. I do the same thing every day when I drop “F” bombs around. There are certainly people who tune me out or become outraged with me because I say “fuck,” even if they agree with my message. So a lightbulb went off for me, too.

Although I’m sure I will continue to drop “F” bombs when I believe they are appropriate and while “fuck” may be offensive to some people, it is an adjective or a verb, not a noun used to disparage someone.

Which brings me back around to words and their power. We have advocacy groups telling us every day that certain words aren’t acceptable, from the NAACP to the LGBTQ. So I am adding my voice to the chorus of voices that are trying to tell our society that we are all more alike than we are different…and not just in matters of race, ethnicity or sexual preference.

It’s not okay to call anyone names, people.

People with special needs are people…they are not just a diagnosis or a stereotype. They are people with feelings and they deserve to be respected, by us and by our words.

15 thoughts on “What Happened When A Radio Talk Show Host Used The “R” Word On Air

  1. I would add that it is also insensitive to use “lame” or “spaz” in a slang way, as both have been commonly used. I believe most people these days are aware that the R word is offensive, but I think many do not know the origin of “spaz” and don’t stop to think about the impact of how “lame” is used.
    From —– WORDS CAN HURT US, TOO: OFFENSIVE TERMS THAT SHOULDN’T BE USED AS SLANG August 16, 2012 · by inourwordsblog · in Awareness, Queers, Society. ·
    by: Amanda Owens
    “Lame (n.)
    Example: “What a lame party/outfit.”
    Why shouldn’t we use it as slang? This is offensive to those who have a physical disability and doesn’t provide perspective, sympathy or support for their very real, everyday experience.”
    Also, the casual, slang use of the word spaz– http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/myl/languagelog/archives/003020.html
    http://disabledfeminists.com/2009/12/04/ableist-word-profile-spazspak/

    • I agree! I hate hearing a kid call someone a spaz. I have told my children the origin of the word, and since my beloved sister had the spastic form of cerebral palsy, they know they’d better NOT use it. Also, I’d love it if they’d stop their friends when they use it and explain.

      • My dear friend Sarah! Hope all is well at your house – loved the back to school picture of your kids. They are gorgeous! You are right about the spaz word…I’ll work on a blog post about that one too! Love you!!

    • Debbie, I’m going to write a post about this too! I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t thought about what it means to say those words but you have enlightened me! I will try to write something that touches on all the words we use to disparage others! The main thing I think about words that have to do with disabilities of any sort is that they are words that insult a group of people who are already vulnerable to begin with. Like I always say, I’ve learned more from people who our society tells us are “different” than I’ve ever learned from anyone who is “normal” and your daughter has been one of my life’s greatest teachers!

  2. I don’t like the “R” word either (have a niece with Downs), but does anyone remember the saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”?

    • Ron, thanks for reading and commenting! And I think that when our moms told us about “stick and stones” they were just trying to make us feel better because someone had hurt us with a word. I agree that we have to pick our battles and toughen up sometimes – not get hung up on being “politically correct” – but what bothers me about the “R” word is that it’s disparaging a group of people who often can’t advocate for themselves. If someone calls me a name, I can stand up for myself but some of my friends with special needs can’t do the same. “The pen is mightier than the sword” is also true…I wish that people would think about the power of the words when those words can hurt those who are already vulnerable.

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment! I hate that people use a word that hurts so many people that I know and love so I’m going to keep on speaking out! It’s interesting because several people I know called that radio station, asking to talk to the guy who said the “R” word but no one got a return call but me. Maybe because I told the person who answered the phone that I was planning to blog about it and he might want to talk to me before I did? He called me back pretty quick and started off defensively but as we talked, he started backtracking. I believe that he literally had no idea that the “r” word is offensive, which is unfortunately, how a lot of people think. I’m grateful to you for your support!!

    • Thank you for reading and commenting. I agree, people that use the “R” word are bullies! I was so shocked that the radio guy seemed to be genuinely oblivious to how hurtful that word is but unfortunately, there are way too many people who think like he does! You and I are “preaching to the choir” since we both “get it” but maybe if we keep standing up for people with special needs, we can make stop the use of this offensive and bully word!!

  3. I just read this to my daughter and she said, “Go, Ms. Debra!” ( I didn’t read out to hear some of the words, because I hope she never learns them. And I am unfamiliar w/ at least 2 of them and wouldn’t be able to explain them, anyway.) It did create an opportunity to explain what transgendered is.
    And, I would say that words really do have tremendous power and there’s a reason they say the pen is mightier than the sword. Words can inspire lasting change and it’s up to the user whether that will be for good or for bad.

    • You are so right, Debbie! And I hope our girl never learns any of the bad words in my post. I agree with you about “lame” and “spaz” as well. Maybe if we keep advocating and educating enough, people will finally learn about that words have such power.

  4. Thanks for this blog Debra. We need a continual reminder that words are powerful. They can hurt or help. I know I have words in my vocabulary that I need to think about before I use.

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