Why I’m Spreading the Word to End the Word

A guest post from ThuyVy Duong, who works with SUCCESS (Students United for Campus-Community Engagement for Post-Secondary Success), a partnership of UMBC and the Maryland Department of Disabilities. SUCCESS is the first 4-year college experience for young adults with intellectual disabilities in Maryland.

My name is ThuyVy Duong and I pledge to not use the R-word.

Every Monday and Wednesday, I teach a service learning class for the freshmen SUCCESS students. There’s Bryan, whose cooking skills would certainly earn him Gordon Ramsey’s approval. Behind him sits Cedrick, lover of photography and an avid Ravens fan. Next to him is Evan, whose artwork never ceases to amaze me. DeDe sits in the corner and has her headphones in, no doubt jamming to 3LW. Up front is Mary, who won a gold medal at the Special Olympics. She’s talking to Jessie, who always volunteers to assist me in class activities. Last but not least is Dan; he’s a very quiet student but today, I find him talking and laughing with one of the peers. Needless to say, I love my students.

As part of the curriculum this semester, we needed to choose a topic in which we were going to develop our service learning project around. I suggested a couple of ideas (“Helping the homeless!” “Toy drive!” “Soup kitchen!”) but all of them were met with either blank stares and silence or head shakes of disapproval. I was starting to panic as my list of ideas got shorter and shorter. “Alright, guys,” I said, nervously. “How about we do something related to the R-word campaign?” I breathed a sigh of relief as they all unanimously said, “YES.”

So, what is the R-word campaign? 

Spread the Word Awareness FlierThe R-word campaign asks people to stop saying the R-word as a starting point towards creating more accepting attitudes and communities for all people. The R-word, retard, is slang for the term mental retardation. Mental retardation was what doctors, psychologists, and other professionals used to describe people with significant intellectual disabilities. Today, however, the R-word has been widely used in society to degrade and insult people with intellectual disabilities. Not only that but it is also used as a synonym for “dumb” or “stupid.” Such usage only reinforces painful stereotypes of people with intellectual disabilities being less valued members of humanity.

Think about it. How many times have you heard someone say “That is so retarded” or “Don’t be such a retard”? How many times has that someone been you? When used in this way, the R-word can apply to anyone or anything. It may not be specific to someone with a disability but regardless, it is still hurtful. Why does it hurt? The R-word hurts because it is exclusive, offensive and derogatory.

The R-word campaign is supported by Special Olympics, Best Buddies, and over 200 other organizations from around the world. Currently, there are 418,304 online pledges from people who have agreed to stop using the R-word. In terms of legislation, President Obama signed Rosa’s Law into federal law in October 2010, removing the terms “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” from federal health, education and labor policy and replacing them with “individual with an intellectual disability” and “intellectual disability.” The law is a significant milestone in establishing inclusion and respect for all people with intellectual disabilities.

At this point, I hope you’re thinking about what you can do to support this campaign. If you’re drawing a blank, here are a few ideas to get you started.

  • Pledge to stop using the R-word at r-word.org
  • Approach others who use the R-word and have a conversation with them about why the R-word is hurtful in everyday speech
  • Help spread the word about the campaign in your school, community, workplace, or social network
  • Get involved with Special Olympics, Best Buddies, SUCCESS or other organizations that are united in this cause

Every year, the campaign has an annual day of awareness. This year’s date is March 5, coinciding perfectly with Critical Social Justice Week. As such, SUCCESS and Best Buddies will have a bake sale on Monday (3/3) and Tuesday (3/4) from 11am-1pm on Main Street as part of the Critical Social Justice Fair. Come meet the SUCCESS students and pledge to ‘spread the word to end the word.’

I am terrible with endings so I am going to conclude this post with a quote from Tim Shriver, Chairman and CEO of Special Olympics. I think it is a poignant reminder of why the R-word campaign is so important. If anything, I hope I have motivated you to support this campaign. See you at the bake sale next week!

“Everyone has a gift and the world would be better off if we recognized it.”

-Timothy Shriver


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