Eighteen months ago, UVU’s Alumni Student Life Intern Erin Fleming witnessed a miracle: a life brought into this world when everything confirmed the infant’s death. Many complications afflicted the pregnancy of Fleming’s niece, but she was carried to term and survived. To Fleming, her niece is the most beautiful person, and she has Down syndrome. She is growing up in a world that is constantly changing how those in her position are treated.
Those born with intellectual disabilities and diagnosed with mental retardation have faced the stigmas and stereotypes of having their disability transformed into a derogatory slur.
According to the national “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign on r-word.org, the use of the words “‘retard’ and ‘retarded’ have been used widely in today’s society to degrade and insult people with intellectual disabilities.”
The campaign, started in 2004 and supported by the Special Olympics, strives to spread awareness about the use of the word ”retard” and why it should be eliminated from superficial use. All over the nation, schools and communities support the campaign by raising awareness of the use of the r-word and the derogatory meaning that now lies behind it. The campaign is holding a National Awareness Day on March 7, 2012, to bring to light the pledge to “Spread the Word to End the Word” that each person of this community can make.
The r-word has changed meaning throughout history. What was once a clinical description is now considered an insult. This word is not only used to describe those with intellectual disabilities, but has become slang for words such as “dumb,” “stupid” or “moron” for people without them.
“They are not synonymous,” said McKall Rappleye, the supported living coordinator at RISE Services Inc., a company focused on supporting the lives of individuals with disabilities. “If you are going to call someone stupid, then call them stupid.”
Many people who have a disability, as well as their loved ones, feel the effects of the use of the r-word.
“It was miserable,” said Benjamin McNabb, a 20-year-old with high functioning autism. “Seeing people point at [others] and calling them those names is just awful.”
Name-calling impacts those it is used to describe. Most everyone has, at least at one point in time or another, been teased or made fun of and can validate the effect it had on them.
“Words are powerful things. The words you use to describe someone can have great meaning and great impact on their life,” said Edward Martinelli, Jr., director of accessibility services at UVU.
He goes on to explain how the clinical diagnosis of mental retardation is classified for a person who has an IQ lower than 70. He says that generally when people call each other the r-word they are not actually trying to describe an IQ. Many of those who do have intellectual disabilities are able to function in the daily routine of life going to school, working and having relationships.
“They have special gifts and talents that even we don’t have,” said Brenda Rader, program assistant at RISE Services Inc.
According to Rappleye, many of her clients can spell better than she can or could give a speech better than she could.
“They are real people, too. They have feelings; they are smart and intelligent. They just learn differently than some people,” said DeeAnn Brewster, a teacher at Timpanogos High School who has a son with Down syndrome.
Those with intellectual disabilities understand when they are being teased. They know who they are.
When asked what he wanted others to see him as, McNabb immediately said, “Normal, not ‘Oh, there’s the retard’. I’m not that. I’m intelligent.”
Here in Utah Valley, and more specifically at UVU, use of the r-word is not heavily thrown at those with disabilities, but it is used as an insult toward peers. The r-word campaign is still at its grassroots stage here at UVU, although the treatment of all students on campus is overall fair and inclusive.
“UVU works very hard to be as inclusive as they can with students who have intellectual disabilities and encourage them to be as serious about education as anyone else,” Martinelli said.
By Kimberly Lender