Today is Spread the Word to End the Word Awareness Day- a day dedicated to building awareness against the use of the r-word. But, why is that so important? Use of that R-word, “retard” or “retarded,” is hurtful and painful and whether intended or not, is a form of bullying. Most people don’t think of this word as hate speech, but that’s exactly what it feels like to millions of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, their families and friends. The R-word is just as cruel and offensive as any other slur. Eliminating the use of this word is a step toward respect.
When I was a kid, my mom raised my sisters and I with just that belief. While we never had the chance to meet our older brother, his brief life had an impact on us. You see, before his passing he was given the diagnosis of mental retardation (when this was still a valid diagnosis) and suspected autism, and so we were taught from a young age that using that r-word in any form aside from the medical was as bad as any curse word in our home. This was a message I carried with me and tried to pass along to others long before having a special needs child of my own.
But after having my son, I realized just how important spreading this message was. Take a look at these numbers from The Shriver Report Snapshot: Insight into Intellectual Disabilities in the 21st Century-
- 89% of Americans think it is offensive to call someone with a clear intellectual disability “Retarded”
- 56% of Americans feel it is not offensive to refer to oneself as “Retarded” when they make a mistake
- 38% of Americans feel it is not offensive to call a friend “Retarded” when they do something foolish
This year, I saw even more firsthand just the type of attitude that this culture of the r-word can produce and the way that people with special needs are treated when we made the difficult decision to remove my son from an extracurricular activity that he enjoyed due to the way he was being treated. This was a group that was supposed to teach its participants to be friendly, kind and moral. Sadly, this was not our overall experience. Instead we saw disrespect. When my son would sit next to the other boys, they would run away. When they were playing games and my son didn't understand the rules of the game completely, they would gang up on him, 'Tag Shaun! Make him it!' and when one child would refuse they would get themselves tagged so they could do it. And when Shaun figured out the rules, like what being on base meant, suddenly the rules would be changed. 'No more base! You're still it!' I saw my child, who typically does not realize that he is being picked on, starting to pick up on it. It didn't end with the children, we saw it from the parents too. They would whisper behind his back, giving looks of disapproval when he struggled with being overwhelmed. After one particularly difficult instance, we later learned that parents were calling to complain. They didn't come to us and ask if there was anything that could be done to help, they didn't offer encouragement and support, they didn't care to get to know my son at his best, only judged him at his worst. Now, don't get me wrong, there were a few parents that stepped up and were understanding, and I did greatly appreciate those few, but that was not our overall experience. Instead, we felt unwelcome. We felt that our family and our child were too different to be a part of this club. Oh, how far a little bit of understanding would have gone in this situation.
But what does that have to do with the r-word? When we continue to accept the use of this word as an insult, we continue to send the message that this kind of behavior is okay! We say that it's okay to pick on someone who is different. We say its okay to laugh at a joke made at the expense of someone with developmental disabilities. We say its okay to exclude someone because their brain works differently or because of the diagnosis they carry. We say that they are LESS, and deserve less respect.
This may not be the intention, but for many around the world living with intellectual or developmental disabilities, this is what they are hearing. We have to change this. We have to stop this culture. We have to teach our children that the only acceptable r-word is RESPECT. So today, I ask each and every one of you to take a look at the impact of your words and join me in taking the pledge to Spread the Word to End the Word. It is such a simple action that can make such a world of difference.
Ready to take the pledge? Click here for more information.