Campaign hopes to end the use of the ‘R-word’
March 3, 2010
by Eleanor Chute, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
High school sophomore Elizabeth Marince cringes when she hears the "r word." She doesn't even like to utter the word when talking about why no one should be called a "retard" or "retarded."
But she has no problem explaining her reasons.
"It's used way too often in everyone's language," said Elizabeth, 15, of Moon and a sophomore at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School. "It's hurtful not only to the children with special needs but to the families and the people who love them."
Elizabeth and fellow student council member Anthony Sardello are among hundreds of people across the nation leading pledge drives today for the "Spread the Word to End the Word" campaign.
The roots of the campaign go back to 2007 when Soeren Palumbo, now a student at University of Notre Dame, gave an impassioned speech against the use of the word.
Last year, at the global youth summit of the Special Olympics, the idea of a national campaign was born and put together in six weeks. About 250 schools plus some faith-based organizations participated.
This year, the campaign has taken off, with more than 78,000 pledges — vowing not to use the r word — on its website www.r-word.org as of Tuesday. Hundreds of schools and other organizations are participating today. The effort is co-sponsored by Special Olympics and Best Buddies, both of which help people with disabilities.
"Last year, I think they thought the r word was 'recession.' It's becoming more and more known. We're glad people are talking about it. For so long, people with intellectual disabilities have been isolated, ignored," said Kirsten Seckler, vice president of communications for Special Olympics.
Last year's event came about a week after President Barack Obama was criticized for comparing his bowling skills to the Special Olympics on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." More recently, controversy erupted when White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel apologized for using word "retarded" at a private meeting last year.
"While that became very political, which we are not, it did raise discussion in the media. I think people are now listening and paying attention," said Ms. Seckler.
However, she said whether to use the word remains controversial. "There's a lot of people who don't understand or don't think that you should stop using the word."
"We're not banning the word. We just want people to understand that the pejorative use of 'retard' is very hurtful to a very large group of people."
While other undesirable terms have been more common in the past, Ms. Seckler said "retard" has "become the modern insult. It seems to be more prevalent in today's society."
Nancy Murray, president of the Arc of Greater Pittsburgh, a member of Achieva, who provides services to people with disabilities and their families, said, "I think it's great Special Olympics is really taking this on. I think the message coming from other students and people with disabilities is going to make an impact."
The cause hits close to home for Elizabeth because her brother, Michael, 22, is nonverbal, nearly blind, has some difficulty walking and has other challenges.
"Without him, my life would be completely different. I learned so much from him," she said.
Before she leaves for school in the morning, she goes into his room and gives him a hug. He gets another big hug when she gets home from school, and they spend some time watching television or reading in the evening.
"He smiles every time he goes to bed. His smile says a million words," she said.
She said the use of the word "retard" — aimed at those who have disabilities and those who don't — is "very common."
"It's thrown around as if it is just a normal word. It's very difficult to hear that word.
"There are better ways to express your feelings," she said.
Plans for today's pledge campaign have been under way at the school for more than a month. "I have not received one negative response," she said.
During lunch, students will be given information and encouraged to sign pledges that they won't use the word and will be eligible for a raffle for a T-shirt and accessories that feature the campaign's name.
Students in some other schools — including Baldwin, Deer Lakes and Canon-McMillan high schools — also are planning to campaign for pledges today.
Gregory Thomas, a student teaching intern at Canon-McMillan High School, said students in two sections of Civic Leadership II will conduct an awareness day.
The idea started with an assignment from a course on students with disabilities Mr. Thomas is taking at the University of Pittsburgh. But he said the students themselves decided to make it a schoolwide effort, and others have gotten involved as well. About 60 students and adults are expected to wear locally designed T-shirts highlighting the theme.
Clayton Lehmeier, 17, a Canon-MacMillan senior from Canonsburg, said the word is used too much in "everyday vocabulary."
"We're just trying to change that because it's not the most respectful word to use. A lot of kids don't understand how disrespectful it really is."
Today's efforts will include getting student signatures on a banner that says, "The new r word is respect."
Also involved is Autumn Weleski, an autistic support teacher at Deer Lakes High School and sponsor of the Best Buddies program, which, among other things, pairs special education students with regular education students.
Students will seek pledges during lunch and will ask students to sign handprints that will be displayed.
"I'm hoping students will stop using the word so loosely and will realize the negative impact it has on all students," she said.
Elizabeth said, "This is just a win for everyone. Stopping the r word hurts no one. It benefits everyone.
"It's just making the world better one word at a time."
About Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School
Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School (www.lppacs.org) is a Pennsylvania public school providing a state-approved academic program and pre-professional training for grades 7-12 in music, theater, dance, creative writing, health science arts and media arts. The school enrolls students from more than 65 surrounding school districts.
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