The New R-Word: Respect

There have been so many good things written and said about the r-word, but I’m going to take a crack at explaining why this issue is important to me.

You know that old sticks-and-stones line? I guess it was created to try to help kids brush off cruelty, but it is the biggest lie I’ve ever heard. Words are powerful. Words do hurt. Words let us express our emotions, our frustrations, our attitudes and even our prejudices. Don’t believe words are powerful?

Would you like to sit with me?

I love you.

I miss you.

You’re important to me.

Will you marry me?

You’re not good enough.

I hate you.

You’re fired.

You’re retarded.

Depending on your background, each of those phrases probably evoked a certain emotion, but to me, there’s no denying that the last one stings.

The r-word has become a blanket insult:¬†a word meant to identify something as¬†insufficient, broken, unpleasant or just plain bad. Some will argue that using it this way isn’t meant to hurt anyone, and we shouldn’t take offense since it wasn’t directed at a person. Or that, because the literal definition means “slowed down,” it is okay to use the word in this way.

Let me try to explain. When you take a medical term and apply it to things that you don’t like, you’re applying negative stereotypes to the word, which in turn, applies those stereotypes to individuals with that medical diagnosis. To explain it in another way, let’s take my name, Mandi. If you start saying “Mandi” to mean things you don’t like, I will imply that you don’t like me, and that my name is bad, therefore I am bad. Try it with your own name: My iPod doesn’t work, it’s so _____. The car in front of me isn’t going fast enough, the driver must be _____. You didn’t understand that movie? You must be _____. I hate that idea, it’s so _____. The next time you are about to use the r-word, replace it with your name and see how it makes you feel.

This is why we’ve been fighting to have the medical terminolgy changed. Yes, there’s a chance that “intellectual disability” or ID, will soon become an insult. But that’s why this movement is about more than just the r-word itself. We’re trying to change attitudes. We’re trying to show the public what individuals with intellectual disablities have to offer. We’re trying to convince people that different doesn’t mean bad.

Individuals with intellectual disabilites (and those who love them) have had to fight for decades to overcome stereotypes, be accepted and included, be hired for jobs. Just a few decades ago, parents who were told their child had Down syndrome were then advised to place the child in an institution. This population has been overlooked and underestimated for long enough. It’s time we give them the credit and respect they deserve.

Here are a few of my friends, whom I respect and admire:

Chris, who earned one gold, one silver and two bronze medals at the 2011 World Games in Greece

Shirlene, who was the Grand Marshal in Governor Nixon's Inauguration Parade

Sarah, who never forgets a birthday, and who conquered her fear of heights by going Over the Edge of the Tiger Hotel

Rob, who can lift more weight than anyone I know

David, who can always make me laugh, no matter how stressful my day has been

Tina, the proudest aunt I know, and Beth, the Columbia Women's Intersport Network Sportswoman of the Year

Each of these individuals has accomplished something great. Each of them has made a positive impact on my life. They are some of the kindest, most loving people I know. They would love to be your friend, too.

Would you ever say the r-word in front of them? If not, please don’t say it when they’re not there. Take the pledge today at www.r-word.org.

Mandi Steward is the Marketing Manager for SOMO. You can reach her at steward@somo.org.

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