The “R-word” or “retard(ed)” has found a place in common language and seems to be accepted by most, despite the fact that its use, casual or otherwise, is hurtful to millions of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) and those who love them — like me.
My oldest brother Sammy was diagnosed with Autism at the age of 4. I had trouble understanding his disability as a child, but as I grew older, I became more and more invested in protecting the welfare of people with IDD, especially my brother’s.
The “R-word” hurts, even if it is not directed at a person with IDD. For too long, people with IDD have had to overcome the challenges society has put forth through stereotypes. It is time for a change.
Before my senior year in high school, I attended a leadership conference with Best Buddies International, an organization dedicated to creating opportunities for friendship, integrated employment and leadership development for people with IDD. At this conference, I met Soeren Palumbo, the young man who co-founded the Spread the Word to End the Word Campaign a year earlier in 2008.
The lesson I learned from Palumbo will stick with me for the rest of my life: words do hurt. The use of the “R-word” makes people with IDD feel less human — whether or not that is the speaker’s intention.
People with these types of disabilities accomplish great things, are members of our local communities, and deserve the same respect and dignity that each of us expect from others in our daily lives.
I learned more from the friends I made in Best Buddies than I’ve ever learned from any teacher. Casey taught me to laugh. Tyler taught me to be strong. Michael taught me to love unconditionally.
Tara Montgomery, a student at University of San Diego and former Best Buddies participant, had a similar experience to mine.
“Prior to meeting Aaron, I came to the assumption that I would be the one putting in all of the effort in our friendship,” she said. “I thought that I would be the one helping and teaching him life lessons, but ironically he ended up teaching me more than I could have ever imagined. Aaron became not only one of my best friends, but he became a mentor to me.”
Spread the Word to End the Word is an ongoing effort by the Special Olympics, Best Buddies and their supporters to raise the consciousness of society about the dehumanizing and hurtful effects of the “R-word” and to encourage people to pledge to stop using the “R-word.”
Every year in March, high schools and universities around the globe participate in Spread the Word to End the Word Day. Adam Grijalva, founder of The Skate Connection, brought the campaign to his school in 2010.
“The campaign I ran in my high school was really effective,” Grijalva said. “ I tried to make everyone feel apart of something big and feel like they were making a difference, and they definitely did.”
Grijalva led general education and special education students in a march around their campus. He said the change in the dynamic between the students was apparent.
“I saw a difference in the direction of the whole social interaction between special ed and general ed students,” he said. “It was progressing.”
You can pledge to end your use of the “R-word” at www.r-word.org.