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Friday, March 27, 2009

End the "R" Word

New rule: Let's make this word unacceptable
By Maria King Carroll
March 27, 2009

I have despised the word "retard" for more than 40 years, which is as long as I've had a brother with intellectual disabilities. So when I heard about the Special Olympics' Spread the Word to End the Word campaign, my first thought was: finally. I am tired of cringing when otherwise nice people thoughtlessly use the word, tired of feeling outraged when it is employed with the cruelty of hate speech.

The R-word deserves extinction. Let's make it unacceptable.

Retard connotes defective, stupid, an absence of good qualities. It's a reduction. It's as if someone took your most noticeable weakness and reduced your entire identity to a mean term that describes this weakness. At, you can view stories and videos about some of the amazing people who've had this awful term applied to them.

Targeting words for elimination isn't a small thing, but this one adds no knowledge or understanding of whom it describes. It does, however, tell us something about the user, and it isn't complimentary. The R-word hurts people with intellectual disabilities when it is spat at them or even used in a joking manner.

Banishing this particular word is only one step in the process of humanizing the world for people with disabilities. Many people were offended by President Barack Obama's unfortunate remark about his bowling game being suitable for the Special Olympics. That someone who is as smart, thoughtful and compassionate as the president could make a comment like this illustrates the work we need to do. Because for many, making fun of people with intellectual disabilities is something they don't think about; it's still OK.

People with intellectual disabilities don't react with hostility when they are dissed. As actor John McGinley of "Scrubs," who has a son with Down syndrome, said, "When you pick on that group, you've picked the perfect storm of cowardice to exercise your vitriol, because they're not going to return serve." They're equipped to hug not hit, said McGinley. Proving McGinley's point, 38-year-old Special Olympian Tim Maloney, a bowler with a 165 average, offered bowling tips to the president after Obama's appearance on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

Many of us who are passionate about Spread the Word to End the Word come at this from personal experience. My brother Joseph was born in 1966. His disability wasn't obvious at birth. But he was the fourth child of my parents, and they noticed that he was hitting his developmental milestones—walking, talking—much later than his older siblings. My parents told us that Joe was slow, which was all they knew at the time. In the mid-1960s, the knowledge about and resources for those who were intellectually challenged were scarce.

As time went on, we learned how slow; today my brother lives in a supervised group home where he needs help with personal hygiene and can't drive a car. He also has a job, is a passionate fan of the Dallas Cowboys, comes home most weekends, and has one of the most finely calibrated moral compasses I've ever seen.

Growing up, we lived in a close-knit neighborhood. My parents were friendly with all the other parents in the neighborhood. Perhaps because of this closeness, I don't remember Joe being teased or called names by the neighborhood children. When you know a person with intellectual disabilities, you are less likely to call them, or others like them, names.

And this is the ultimate goal of the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign, which launches on March 31: people at all levels of intellectual functioning becoming friends, or at least part of each other's worlds. This impulse is one of the forces behind mainstreaming in education (it's good not only for the intellectually challenged kids), the Special Olympics, which needs lots of volunteers, and L'Arche, a Catholic movement of residential care.

Our world is much richer when all of us get to contribute our gifts. But it's hard to see people's value when names like retard are acceptable. Let's end the word today.

Maria King Carroll lives in West Peoria, Ill.