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Students pledge to stop using the ‘R-word’

Irena Zajickova | Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Yesterday, the University participated in an “End the R-Word Day” event, the goal of which was to collect pledges from Notre Dame students to end their derogatory use of the word “retarded.”

Student volunteers manned booths at the LaFortune Student Center as well as both dining halls to encourage students to sign pledge banners that read: “As a member of the Notre Dame community, I pledge to end my pejorative use of the word ‘retarded.'”

Soeren Palumbo, a sophomore at Notre Dame who brought the event to campus, said that the main goal of the event is to call the University’s student body to take a stand against hate speech.

“Once someone sits down and thinks about the prejudice and hatred that the word embodies, they will realize that to these people and these people’s families, this word is really a form of hate speech,” Palumbo said. “Disabled people have been a target of mockery and dehumanization for the entirety of human history.”

Palumbo, who is a co-director of the Special Olympics Outreach Program, came up with the idea while talking with Tim Shriver, a Yale student, at the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Boise, Idaho.

The two students decided to declare one specific day as “End the R-Word Day” in order to ensure their project had the biggest impact. They created a Facebook page and once people learned of the idea, more and more people wanted to help, he said.

Special Olympics International got involved, as did actor John C. McGinley of the hit show “Scrubs,” who has promoted the event through various media appearances. This advertising inspired many high schools and universities, including Notre Dame, to bring the event to their campuses.

Palumbo relied heavily on a team of dedicated helpers to promote the event on campus. Students hung up posters, invited their friends to a Facebook event and decorated the ground with sidewalk chalk. He said he was happy to see so much support for the event from students.

“It’s cool to see that there are all these other people on campus that are really passionate about it,” Palumbo said. “It’s not just some little pet project.”

Sophomore Mary Forr is one such student. She said that she has been affected by use of the word “retarded” by watching its effect on her older sister.

“My older sister Marita has several physical and mental handicaps and I’ve seen how hurt she is by people’s thoughtless use of the word,” she said. “I realize that people don’t mean to hurt anyone by the use of this word, but it does hurt them.”

Ed Suski, the president of Best Buddies at Notre Dame, agreed that much of the problem stems from students not understanding how insulting the word is.

“The goal [of this project] is really just raising awareness,” he said. “You hear people saying the R-word all the time and they don’t even think about how it’s hurtful.”

Palumbo, who has a younger sister with an intellectual disability, said that he hopes the event will inspire people to get involved in the cause.

“You can take the pledge but it’s about much more than taking a word out of your vocabulary,” he said.