End the Word Once and For All

Think about it. If you, one of your friends, or a family member had a disability, how would you feel when others use the word “retard(ed)” as a synonym for “stupid”? It may be hard to imagine how that would feel, but there are many wonderful people who do know what it is like. The r-word is offensive because it is exclusive and derogatory. The word “retard(ed)” hurts millions of people and their families. The “n-word” is not socially acceptable in society today; the r-word should not be either. These are both considered hate speech in the eyes of ethnic minorities and individuals with disabilities.

Advocates believe individuals with cognitive disabilities and other developmental disabilities are capable of enjoying life’s experiences and that casual references to the words retard or retarded makes a person with intellectual disabilities feel “less than human.” Campaigns such as Spread the Word to End the Word utilize social media activism to promote their worthy movements. We have found that incorporating social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, add a personal touch to the argument and further advocate for the cause. Take the pledge to spread the word to end the word, and help promote the new r-word: respect.

The Spread the Word to End the Word campaign encourages people to pledge to stop saying the r-word as a starting point toward creating more accepting attitudes and communities for all people.  Language affects attitudes and attitudes affect actions.  The goal is to use respectful, people-first language as in “the student with Autism” rather than “the autistic student.” This language shows that the disability is not the most important aspect, the person is. This campaign was established in 2009 during the Special Olympics Global Youth Activation Summit at the 2009 Special Olympics World Winter Games.  The Spread the Word to End the Word movement was created by youth with and without intellectual disabilities. On March 31, 2009 the campaign celebrated the first Annual Spread the Word to End the Word National Awareness Day. Across the country, students of all ages made a pledge to eliminate “retard” from their vocabulary and encourage others to do the same. Since 2010, most campaign activities have been centered annually on the first Wednesday of March. It continues across the nation today in an attempt to end the use of the r-word in everyday language.

When the terms “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” were first introduced, they were medical terms. Mental retardation was what doctors, psychologists, and other professionals used to describe individuals with significant intellectual impairments. The R-word is slang for the term mental retardation. Sadly, the derogatory forms, “retard” and “retarded” are being used widely in today’s society as an insult for someone or something stupid. Unfortunately, this is only reinforcing the stereotypes of people with disabilities being less valued members of society. Even when the r-word is not said to harm someone with a disability, it is still hurtful. However, much of society does not recognize the hurtful, dehumanizing and exclusive effects of the word “retard(ed).” Because of this, Special Olympics, Best Buddies, and the greater disability community prefers to focus on people and their gifts and accomplishments, and to dismiss negative attitudes and stereotypes. Respectful and inclusive language is crucial to the movement. Thankfully, the words “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” are not being used by professionals in the education and medical fields as of 2010.

On October 5, 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama officially signed bill S. 2781, Rosa’s law, into federal law. The name Rosa’s Law takes its name and inspiration from 9-year-old Rosa Marcellino, who has Down Syndrome, and removes the terms “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” from federal health, education and labor policy and replaces them with people first language “individual with an intellectual disability” and “intellectual disability.” The signing of Rosa’s Law into federal law is a huge milestone in establishing inclusion, respect, and dignity for all people with disabilities. This is just one part of the movement today.

As said before, Spread the Word to End the Word is an ongoing effort by Special Olympics, Best Buddies International, and community supporters to raise the consciousness of society about the dehumanizing and hurtful effects of the word “retard(ed)” and encourage people to pledge to stop using the R-word. The campaign is intended to engage schools, organizations, and communities to rally and pledge their support. On Illinois State’s campus, there were supporters trying to get more people to pledge to stop using the r-word. Students held an event in the Bone Student Center to rally for this important movement. Nationwide, students and other individuals are doing their part and encouraging others to take the pledge as well. As said previously, most activities happen on the first Wednesday of March, but people everywhere can help Spread the Word throughout their communities and schools year-round thru pledge drives, youth rallies and online activation. Special Olympics, along with Best Buddies, created the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign.

Spread the Word to End the Word is a campaign that uses social media to entice internet users to involve themselves in the fight to end the use of the word, retard.  One of the main social media sources this campaign uses is Facebook. The content on the Facebook page ranges from personal stories, to links that lead to articles, to short videos. Each individual story, or video is unique. The content that is on the Facebook page is also all very personal because there is not a specific leading group. The page is run and grows based on the supporters of the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign.

Platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter enable Social Media Activism, which is activism that uses media and communication technologies for social and political movements. Often employed by grassroots activists, these net-based campaigns can spread rapidly and gain followers. Supporters take to Facebook and Twitter to pledge their support.

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One of the major sponsors of the campaign is Special Olympics. They “spread the word” on their social media sites and rally support from their athletes. Special Olympics is an international organization promoting children and adults with disabilities to engage in sports games and competitions with one another.  Special Olympics reaches out to thousands of athletes and their families in hopes to bring a feeling of acceptance, hope, and courage. Mollie, one of our groupmates, is currently an employee at the Illinois Special Olympics headquarters in Bloomington, Illinois. One of their main focuses is making the athletes feel comfortable and “at home.” The Spread the Word to End the Word movement is a big promoter in giving them a feeling of acceptance. When someone with special needs hears the r-word, they get feelings of isolation.

While working at Special Olympics she was blessed to be able to spend time with one of the athletes and she spoke to me about her feelings on the r-word.  This particular athlete, Sandy, is an adult with intellectual disabilities, and she is working hard every day taking classes at Heartland Community College to further herself.  This past semester in an English class, Sandy wrote a paper on the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign and how it is from the perspective of someone who lives with intellectual disabilities. Mollie read her paper and it was very eye opening.  People are constantly using the r-word to refer to something that is “dumb” or “stupid” and that is extremely offensive to someone who is mentally disabled. One thing that she taught Mollie was that the word retard originally was created to describe something that was delayed or progressively slow.  People then used slang to determine a new meaning of the word.  Although Mollie has only had direct conversation with this one athlete, she knows that  Sandy is not the only one that feels discriminated against. Dony Knight, a Special Olympics Athlete in Oregon, said “When you say the “R” word it makes people feel bad and it hurts my feelings and I don’t want to hear you guys say it. Instead, you can call me a leader, a hero, or a human being, but please don’t call me the “R” word”.

The message that this campaign is spreading is so important not only for individuals with disabilities, but also because if we can use social media and other resources to be successful in ending this discrimination, we can use it to end more than just this.  The Facebook page that has been created to get this message out is the perfect way to reach an audience of all ages.  This page has attained over 223 thousand followers and is growing every day. The followers are across the globe and are of all ages and races. We believe that this is because special needs is something that everyone can relate to. There are so many people across the world who have a connection to someone who has a disability. The Facebook page is a place for all of us to come together to show our support for the disabled and put the use of ‘retard’ to rest. The emotional connection people feel when they visit this page and read what is on it or watch the videos that are posted is a big part of the success. Special Olympics chose the right way to get the word out and promote this because in today’s society, almost everyone uses some type of social media and will see the message. This has served as a very successful tool in gaining national attention for this cause and it will only get more noticed from here on out.

The Facebook page specifically tries to spread the cause through the use of short videos. The videos are posted by a variety of other sources such as parents, siblings, and friends of individuals with disabilities. Most of these sources are family members of someone who is affected by the r-word, or in a rare occurrence, celebrities show their support. One particular video which really stood out was posted on the page by the mother of two boys who made the video in support of their sisters. The video itself is very moving and shows the love these boys share for their sisters. The video shows kids each taking positive words and then using those words to cover up the r-word and turn it into a new word, respect. The video really plays on emotions because the viewer gets the sense that all these people really want is to be respected by others. They show that it is not hard to change one’s way of thinking, it just requires a little bit of effort.

The video is not very long, only about five minutes total, but it easily gets the point across about what these boys are trying to do for their sisters and for others like their sisters. It also portrays the entire goal of the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign. Anyone who visits the page would find it enjoyable and easy to sit and watch the video because it only asks for five minutes of a person’s time. In that short time frame though someone’s heart can be captured and the support for the campaign will grow.

Another video that really tugs on the heart strings is called “I Am a Person”.

This video is shorter than the other one, only being about two and a half minutes in length. The video has numerous mentally handicapped people in it expressing how they feel through words on paper. Each paper has a word and then is almost passed on to another with a different word. By the end of the video, an entire thought is realized. Seeing all those people and how they feel really helps someone want to help out the cause. This video assists someone who is not in that position understand how others, that are, feel every day of their lives.

The entire Facebook page plays on emotions to entice people to support their cause and join their fight to end the r-word. One specific example of the way the Facebook page does this is through the personal stories that are posted. One in particular was written by an eighteen year old girl, Laura Hertzog, whose seventeen year old brother, David, has Down Syndrome. She talks about how he rides the short bus to school every day.  She mentions how she has to go to school every day with the thought that her brother is the victim of peer and adult jokes when  her brother is not a joke. To her and her family he is a strong individual who continues to learn and grow every day just like any normal person.The article reaches out to the compassionate part of the heart. To read the story as told by a sister, makes everything seem more real to someone who may not know how life is with a sibling, son, or daughter with a  disability. By reading her own thoughts and feelings on the subject, it becomes clear how strong a family needs to be for that person in their lives and forces others to take a good look at themselves and how they want to be. If this is how the reader feels after looking at this touching story then the goal of the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign has been achieved.

The videos that are posted on the Facebook page are the main way Spread the Word to End the Word gains supporters, and reaches out to teach others about their cause. Videos are more convenient for people. Someone who does not have a lot of time may find that while reading an article takes ten to fifteen minutes, viewing a video requires much less effort and only takes about five minutes. The videos also appeal to the emotions more because, while some articles have colorful and emotional language, nothing really compares to see those emotions played out through a video. The video also shows that the people affected by the issue are real. When reading an article, it is easy to forget that the author is in fact another human being, just like the one who is reading the article. Often the ones who posted these videos and articles were or are affected by the r-word, which is why by reading these posts and watching the videos, the viewer can better understand the emotional toll the r-word has had on that person.

The r-word literally is an offensive term for people with disabilities. By calling someone else “retarded” in an insulting manner, you’re suggesting that having these disabilities is something to poke fun at or be teased for, which it is not. Often, people use “retarded” as a synonym for dumb, forgetful, or silly; people do not use the r-word maliciously, but groups like Spread the Word to End the Word are working towards eliminating discriminatory language to help empower those with special needs, so they can establish a positive identity and be included in society.

Through language and technology, it has become too easy for people in our society to be labeled. With activism campaigns like Spread the Word to End the Word, we can encourage others to imagine what it’s like to be another person and recognize the humanity in us all.

Jessie Daniels, PhD. is a professor at the CUNY School of Public Health Hunter College and The Graduate Center in New York, said “To effect change, social movement organizations must mobilize resources, such as garnering media coverage, establishing organizational structure, and forming political alliances with those in power. The internet is an important new tool for mobilizing these resources, because it increases the speed at which resources can be mobilized and then dispersed for accomplishing movement goals” (Daniels). Spread the Word to End the Word is a grassroots organization that does just this. Through Special Olympics and Best Buddies, Spread the Word to End the Word gets publicized to many supporters and activists.

Soeren Palumbo, co-founder of the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign, said, “Change is about more than words. Change is about words and more. The words we use serve as filters that distort our understanding of ourselves and those around us. And when we remove filters tinted with years of stigma and prejudice, then we can begin to see each other’s humanity a bit more clearly, and begin to act accordingly.”

CaptureLike many words throughout history, the term retarded has been morphed. It’s time to make a change in the way we talk to and about others. The only way to make the change, is to be the change.  Our group encourages you to visit the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign website to find out how you can pledge respect toward all individuals, making the world a more accepting and inclusive place for all people, especially those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. As Mahatma Gandhi, an activist for civil rights and freedom, once said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Works Cited

Daniels, Jessie. “Race, Civil Rights, and Hate Speech in the Digital Era.” Learning Race and Ethnicity: Youth and Digital Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2008. 143-46. Print.

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