As the Special Olympics looks to the 2015 International Games in Los Angeles, the world’s largest sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, continues to shine the spotlight on the need to change attitudes and perceptions around a single, stigmatizing word. In this pair of essays, the Special Olympics’ expresses the need for heightened awareness and compassion on a painful, lingering matter.
The R-Word Drives a Stake Through My Heart
Sometimes I feel like a vampire slayer. I keep trying to kill something that refuses to die. But instead of a vampire, my creepy nemesis is the “r-word.”
Just like Dracula, hearing the word “retard,” used thoughtlessly, sucks the life out of those of us who fall along its toxic path. The term spreads like a viral infection, and suddenly perfectly nice people, who hear others use the r-word, start to use it themselves; meanwhile everyone claims that they mean no harm by it. And so it goes, from person to person, until it becomes so common that even Presidential Chiefs of Staff, radio talk show hosts, movie characters and famous political pundits use the nasty slur, none of them, they say, meaning any harm.
To all of you who use the r-word, let me say it loudly and clearly: It hurts! You don’t have to aim the word directly at me to wound millions of us who live with an intellectual disability. Every time a person uses the r-word, no matter who it’s aimed at, it sends a message that it’s okay to say it. That’s how a slur becomes more and more common. That’s how people like me hear it over and over again, even when you think we aren’t listening.
So, why am I hurt when I hear the word “retard”? Let’s face it, nobody uses the term as a form of praise. At best, it’s used as another way of saying “stupid” or “loser.” At worst, it’s aimed directly at me as a way to label me as an outcast—a thing, not a person. I’m not stupid, not a thing, and certainly not a loser. I’m a person worthy of respect.
That’s what’s so awful about slurs: They make their target feel small. People who live with an intellectual disability do not have an easy life. We have to fight to understand what the rest of you take for granted. We fight for education. We fight to live among the rest of you. We struggle to make friends. We’re often ignored, even when we have something to say. So it hurts that much more, after all our efforts, to hear you casually use a term that means you assume we’re less than whole.
How should we respond to those of you who still use the r-word? Well, like a vampire slayer, we’re going to take aim at your heart. But instead of driving a stake through it, we’re going to slay you with a smile and with compassion. Join us on the side of the good guys. You’ll feel better about yourself, while at the same time helping others to feel better about themselves. Now that’s a movement with some teeth in it!
by John Franklin Stephens
John Franklin Stephens is a Special Olympics global messenger.
The Power of a Word
Six years ago we launched Spread the Word to End the Word as college sophomores with the belief that we, advocates from the disability community, could show our friends and fellow students the devastating and dehumanizing impact of the word “retarded.”
We believed that recognizing the power of words to harm could inspire young people to use words to change the hearts, minds and actions of their communities for the better. Finally, we believed that young people – empowered by a movement of their peers—could change how we see and treat individuals with disabilities with their words, and more.
Emboldened by these ideas, advocates with and without intellectual disabilities have taken up the banner “Spread the Word to End the Word.” From elementary school playgrounds and high school hallways to college campuses and corporate cafeterias, they have continued to recognize the dignity and value of people with intellectual disabilities—work that began long before the two of us came on board. Each year, we see these actions being taken in over 2000 schools, as well as at events in communities around the world. To date, more than 420,000 people have pledged to end the hurtful use of the word “retard” or “retarded.”
Young leaders around the country have begun to transform their communities. Consider, for example, New Iberia Senior High School in New Iberia, LA, and North Canyon High School of Phoenix, AZ. In both of these sprawling public high schools, young people—from leaders in student government to the varsity football team—have decided to end the exclusion of their peers with intellectual disabilities by calling the student body to change its words and more. These schools have shown a more thoughtful language to be a precursor to a smile, a shared cafeteria table, a friendship, an end to social abuse.
But these changes did not come easy. Six years ago, we were met with stiff opposition.We were repeatedly assaulted online with vitriolic comments, and were told that our efforts were either a violation of free speech, or a small-minded exercise in political correctness, or just another example of the “euphemism treadmill.” Most criticism was easy enough to overcome. After all, calling attention to the destructive power of abusive language is hardly censorship. One critique, however, was not so easy to shake: “Changing language alone is a waste of time.” Change, critics said, is about more than words.
Indeed, change is about more than words. Change, we believe, is about words, and more. The words we use serve as filters, and can color and distort our understanding of ourselves and those around us. And when we remove these filters, tainted by years of stigma and prejudice, then we can begin to see each other’s humanity clearly, and act accordingly. A change in words, and then more.
Today, we ask that you help us spread the word to end the word “retard(ed),” and then go further by ending the dehumanization, social marginalization, and belittlement that goes with it.
Today, we ask that you help us change our words, and then more.
People have said:
“A little less conversation, a little more action”
“Sticks and stones”
“Actions speak louder than words”
“Rhetoric is a poor substitute for action”
“Talk is cheap”
But there’s power in words. Let’s wield it wisely.
by Soeren Palumbo and Timbo Shriver
(son of Special Olympics Chairman Timothy Shriver)
L to R: Timbo Shriver and Soeren Palumbo