ROLL THE R WORD OFF YOUR TONGUE
POLLY HAMMERTON, 23 doesn't like the 'R' word. Maybe you've heard it, maybe you've even use it yourself. Either way, the 'R' word, in Polly's opinion, is something we can live without. Used too much and generally incorrectly Polly decided to make a difference and started Roll the R-word off your tongue, a blog and awareness project. Fueled by personal experience, RTRWORYT is an insightful look into a word that is more harmful than most realise. After hearing from Polly maybe you'll even roll the 'R' word off your tongue too.
TD: Who is Polly Hammerton, the person behind ‘Roll The R-Word Off Your Tongue’?
RTRWOYT: I’m 23 years old alongside my triplet brothers Healy and Pierce. Our super-parents are Anne and Leigh. We grew up in Rural Victoria in a small country town called Murtoa. A big part of my life is spending time with my family and close friends, as well as running, waking up early, au pair-ing, OP shopping, and surfing.
TD: Where did the personal passion to start this project come from?
RTRWOYT: Pierce was diagnosed with an aggressive acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia in May last year. After feeling immensely helpless, I thought about things I could do for him. My family have always been greatly associated with people with disabilities especially because Pierce has Down Syndrome, Autism and Bi-Polar and he attended a special developmental school. So I suppose it naturally came about that I pursued a Speech Pathology degree and started advocating for people with disabilities.
TD: There were a number of catalysts (#timesup and a Netflix comedians joke) that took the idea for RTRWOYT from a form of self-expression to a platform to positively affect others. Tell us about that idea shift.
RTRWOYT: Seeing more and more vulnerable populations speak out on social media platforms in recent times has been very inspiring. As the #timesup movement came to the forefront I remember thinking how liberating it must feel to share your experiences with others to create a positive change. After reading about the comedian who mocked people who have Down Syndrome, I was reminded that although we have come a long way - discrimination and judgement still exist greatly for people with disabilities.
Having a sibling with a disability means our family have this connection with so many others out there who share a similar family dynamic or life experience. I figured speaking out about a problem the disability community face surrounding discrimination would be a good step forward. This project was a great way to connect with these individuals and families too, but I didn't realise that until after I put it all out there!
TD: How does it feel to see your brother (someone you describe as having a personality as unique as everyone else in the world) be categorised by others to a singular word which holds a negative connotation?
RTRWOYT: It’s crushing enough to think people might see or describe Pierce using the r-word because of his disability. But it hurts, even more, to think that the r-word or similar connotations might still come to mind first despite all that he is, and the many challenges he has overcome in his entire life - particularly in the last year. For example, previously, Pierce found it difficult to cope if someone tried to put a t-shirt on him that wasn't blue... He now receives a daily injection in his belly without hesitation, and for half a year wore a Hickman's port dangling from his chest like a badge of honour! For Pierce one of his greatest challenges (of all things) was allowing the nurse to shave his chest where the port would be inserted and also seeing Healy and I shave our heads for the World's Greatest Shave. I admire Pierce's ability to overcome new challenges, try new things, and continuously make us laugh. The r-word just isn’t a valid term that reflects his (or anyone's) personal achievements and experiences. In its pejorative form, it is not a valid word full stop.
TD: Outside of RTRWOYT you recently completed a speech pathology degree. How much power does communication and the words we choose affect our lives?
RTRWOYT: Words alone have so much power! Thankfully nowadays people acknowledge that the “sticks and stones” phrase is well and truly obsolete. But although this is acknowledged, I think there is a lack of transfer into practical situations and people simply forget or don’t realise the words they frequently use is actually offending someone. The essence of a Speech Pathologist's work focuses on optimising someone's potential to communicate. When clients (particularly children) have trouble with this, many would fear standing out because of their differences, or worse, fear being pointed out or negatively compared to undesirable things that are described using the "r-word." Kids hear this, and other similar words, pretty early on in life and it can affect them for life.
TD: The phrase ‘mentally retarded’ used in the 1700’s was purely intended as a scientific term. When and why did its use change?
RTRWOYT: Dating back as far as the 1400’s, the word ‘retard’ derived from the Latin word ‘retardare’ meaning to hinder or make slow. It wasn’t until the 1960’s when the word was first used to label people who were intellectually disabled. The ambition was to re-label individuals as ‘mentally retarded’, rather than to use what were considered to be, at the time, ‘out-dated’ terms such as imbecile or moron. More recently, in fact, within the last 50 years, the r-word became somewhat socially acceptable to be used as a reference for people who were intellectually or physically disabled. It then rapidly became a term of derision, and to this day is still commonly interchanged with words such as idiot or stupid.
The reason the R-word has lingered for so long is likely that its medical and slang use overlapped for a greater period of time. It was used in both technical and jargon forms simultaneously causing ambiguity, confusion, and offence to many.
TD: How do you think growing up in a small country town altered your perception to the ‘r words’ use?
RTRWOYT: I think regardless of location you will always be confronted by this. The use of the r-word in its pejorative form takes place in different locations all over the world. Perhaps being in a small town makes it increasingly difficult to escape or liberate yourself from being affected by it – much like it would be more challenging growing up as a member of the LGBTIQ community in a small country town where there's less diversity and freedom and everyone knows bloody everyone, and everything (whether it is fact or not).
TD: Freedom of speech is a simple way to defend the opposing side of your argument. Shouldn’t people be able to choose their own words?
RTRWOYT: Freedom of speech is the most common argument. Many people continue to defend their use of the word by saying “it’s a real word”. But my contention isn’t to outlaw the word altogether – that would be unrealistic. My main priority is simply to raise awareness about the pain the r-word can cause when used in its pejorative form. Many, many people still do not see or understand the negative association and stigma it has for people with disabilities and their families and friends, even when it’s not used directly at someone with a disability. It’s inevitable that you cannot completely avoid coming across this word or other insulting words in your lifetime. But if there’s potential to eliminate it where you can and increase people’s awareness and insight so they can make an informed, conscious decision as to whether they use the r-word, I feel this is something worth advocating for.
The R-word is still used appropriately in some contexts (for example – according to engineers or bakers this word is still widely used) but when used in its derogatory fashion, which it commonly is - it is offensive to so many people.
TD: Is your issue the ‘r’ word itself, the connotation it implies or a combination?
RTRWOYT: The r-word isn’t the one with the problem – it's society and society's use of the word! But it's not necessarily people's fault. Sometimes there's just a lack of understanding such as not knowing what the word previously represented. Some people say it without really thinking too much about it. Whether the r-word is targeted directly at someone with an intellectual disability, or if it's used to describe situations, places and ideas - it is still negatively comparing these things to individuals with intellectual disabilities.
TD: RTRWOYT is a new initiative and you are only just putting out your first content, what do you aim to share on the website/page?
RTRWOYT: I would love my website to be a safe haven for people to share their experiences with the r-word or an outlet that people can use to learn from and increase their awareness surrounding the r-word.
TD: What would be your ultimate success marker for the page? What do you hope to achieve?
RTRWOYT: I never set any personal goals or even really had a clear idea about what I was aiming to do with the page. I am already so excited to see my original article “Roll the r-word off your tongue” has been read over 5000 times. I suppose my ultimate success marker would be that the page continues to have visits and that it doesn’t just stay 'trendy' for 1 week and is then forgotten about. Although I think, hopefully, reading it once through is enough to make a change.
TD: How do we help you and your project?
RTRWOYT: If you feel strongly about this, please just continue to inform others about the pain the r-word can cause. I struggle to verbalise this, which is why I turned to writing the article. So if you don’t feel comfortable confronting someone verbally – simply share the article or tag someone! Communication is a powerful tool and it doesn’t just have to be verbal! If anyone has any other ideas as to how I can get the message out there, don’t hesitate to let me know.
TD: A final thought from you?
RTRWOYT: Thanks to all of you who have shown your support in any way. It's so nice to see that the overwhelming majority of people greatly support this movement and it's important to acknowledge that these supporters are not just people with disabilities or family members with disabilities. Although I find myself wondering if this project is a bit unrealistic, and that I'm just a little too sensitive or naive at times, the response I've received has confirmed just how important a social issue this is.
Get in touch with Polly
Facebook - @rwordunheard
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