Thursday, February 24, 2011

Ending the R-word

This column ran in the Observer on Tuesday February 22, 2011.

"Spread the Word to End the Word." At Notre Dame and across the world people are uniting to end the hurtful use of the word "retard." Here is why I am joining them:

In middle school it felt like I was given the keys to the word. "Swear words" were off limits at school or in front of my parents, but somehow retard toed the line as appropriate. Some pushed back, including my mom emphatically, but once the word became the cool way of calling someone or something stupid there was no stopping it. I never used the word hatefully at people with disabilities, so I cleared myself of responsibility that I could be hurting someone's feelings.

In high school I started volunteering with Special Olympics. The judgments and preconceptions I had about people with disabilities were quickly replaced by enormous respect for the athletes and gratefulness for the energy they brought to my life. Working with the Special Olympics is my first memory of enjoying volunteer work. I left every practice or event inspired by being around so many people that seek friendships without reserve and that possess a full appreciation for all they receive.

Despite making friends with people who have intellectual disabilities and becoming increasingly involved in Special Olympics, I still used the r-word occasionally in high school. Hearing the word so often, my brain's subconscious had disassociated it from the cruel word people use to slander or mock those with disabilities. It was a challenge to eradicate it from my vocabulary. That was until one day when I was on a bus full of Special Olympics athletes heading down to a basketball tournament. I laughed at a story told to me by another volunteer from a couple rows up and responded without thought, "That's so retarded!"

All that heard me immediately got quiet and then a couple athletes looked at me and said with utmost seriousness, "Chris, we don't use that word." Most people never have that moment. After apologizing profusely, I committed to myself to never say the word again. I made the commitment because it became simple to me; why should we use words that offend an entire community of people just by hearing them? None of my friends, athletes or volunteers on that bus thought I was using it hatefully. The athletes stopped me because they were well aware of their medical classification as "mentally retarded" and that society found it acceptable to make retarded synonymous with stupid or ridiculous.

To all those concerned with censorship and the removal of a word out of regular discourse, no one is trying to police you from saying the word. Instead we ask you make a decision for yourself knowing that simply overhearing the word is offensive and often damaging to at least the 5 percent of people in the US with an intellectual disability and their friends and families. The number of people who disapprove of the word is growing, especially at Notre Dame where more than 2,500 students signed a pledge last year to end their use of the r-word. Special Olympians and people across the world who believe in the value of every member of our human family are asking you to be a fan of respect. On End the R Word Day, March 2, we hope you will enthusiastically pledge to end the hurtful use of the word retard.

If you want more information "like" Special Olympics Notre Dame on Facebook and visit!

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