Day in and day out, I’m around people at school, at church, at the checkout line of Wal-Mart, and I hear them use the R-word when making fun of themselves or someone around them. I hear it, and I get that cringe, the same one I know so many of you get. We get that cringe, because we feel the pain that we know someone casually using the word “retarded” in a derogatory manner can cause. We know, because of the people in our life, because of our athlete friends, and because of Special Olympics. We cringe when we hear the R-word used incorrectly, but that cringe… that’s not enough.
When we think about the R-word, many of our minds may jump to our biggest movement against the misuse of the word: Spread the Word to End the Word week. We think of our banners, T-shirts, youth rallies, and all the success we’ve seen come from them. The only problem is, in that moment in my day, I don’t always have those things with me. That’s why I had to work on my only means of reaching someone in that moment. I had to reach them with my words.
Now originally, when I would approach someone after I heard them use the word “retard” in a derogatory manner, I’d always give them the same spiel. I’d tell them: “When you use that word, you are demeaning every person with a mental disability and everyone they know. You should feel like a terrible person. Why? Why would you do that?” and I would walk away angrily.
As I did this, I started to notice a trend in the way people reacted to me. They would get upset, shut down, or even ignore me. That’s when I started to think about what made me change my feelings about the R-word; my friend, Chance. Chance is a SOMO athlete, and one of my best friends, and before I started hanging out with him, the R-word always seemed like this far off vague problem. Anytime I heard someone talk about Spread the Word at school, I felt like they were judging and belittling me for calling something “retarded”. I felt like they were making me the bad guy.
I feel that’s the problem a lot of us face when we approach someone about the R-word. Yes, I may have an extreme emotional attachment to spread the Word, but not everyone might. That’s why when you want to get through to someone, remember that they are people just like you, and remaining calm will get you so much further. Be straight forward, be understanding, and be honest; you never know how much that will get through to someone.
Whitney Durr is a student at Pleasant Hope High School and a member of SOMO’s Youth Activation Committee.