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Spread the word to end the word

Soeren Palumbo, Tim Shriver | Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Tomorrow, a human rights movement will sweep our country. Thousands of college students on hundreds of campuses, joined by students of all ages, are trying to jog the consciousness of a nation. They are sensitizing Americans to a subtle but pernicious prejudice reflected in our language — in the common use of the slur “retard.” Every one of us can join their effort. It’s as simple as changing the way we speak.
But are we fighting something that even exists? We say yes.
Recently, one of the authors was shopping with his 14-year-old sister, Olivia Palumbo. With a slew of children’s books under her arm, Olivia bounded down an aisle, her brother in tow. As she pointed at something that caught her interest, her laugh nearly drowned out a taunting voice from behind: “Who let the retard in? Look guys, I can run like the retard!” The boy and his posse ran by, pointing. Olivia’s intellectual disability had attracted negative attention for years. She did not turn around. Nor did her brother.
This prejudice exists. And it is virulent.
Retard, like other slurs, does more than hurt feelings. These words crystallize discrimination and encapsulate marginalizing stereotypes. What slurs do against ethnic or other minorities, so does “retard” when used pejoratively against people with intellectual disabilities. Because of their effects, society has made these forms of hate speech reprehensible. So it should be with “retard.” Olivia, her friends, her family and all those with intellectual disabilities deserve as much.
But the word often appears in a subtler and, ultimately, more dangerous form. We’ve all heard it before:
A sports fan disparages an official, “Ref, are you a retard!?” A comedian accuses a celebrity of being “retarded.” A politician refers to his colleagues as “f—ing retarded.”
In these examples, the word “retard(ed)” seems to mean something close to “stupid,” “incapable” or “undesirable.” And this seems like harmless fun. After all, if no one like Olivia is being made fun of, what’s the problem? The problem is this. Because of past use of “mental retardation” as a diagnostic term, “retard(ed)” became inextricably tied to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. When the R-word is used, these people are invoked by this connection. When society warps “retard(ed)” to mean something close to “worthless”, or “undesirable,” this bleeds into the image of those with intellectual disabilities and they are associated with this negativity.
The bigotry is subtle but very real. Every pejorative use of the term “retard(ed)” reinforces this stereotype of undesirability. Olivia is neither incapable nor worthless. She is an incredible person with a wealth to contribute to the world.
Unfortunately, she lives in a society that, through its language, demonstrates and perpetuates its belief to the contrary. The words we use blind us to the abilities and worth of people with intellectual disabilities, ultimately robbing us of the invaluable contribution they offer. Is this not enough for us to reconsider our language?
Tomorrow, on March 3, thousands of students are rallying their peers to challenge their language and pledge to end their pejorative use of the R-word. Their intentions are not to ban a word or censor society but rather to awaken others to the harmful effects of this label.
Yet we ask for more than a single day of activism and a pledge. As many critics have pointed out, language is dynamic; if “retard” fades away, new words will rise as replacements. For this reason, this movement calls for a change of not only our language but also our actions and attitudes. We must go beyond words and embrace those oft-ignored members of society whose talents and personalities go forgotten and neglected. Volunteer for Special Olympics or Best Buddies, support legislation that promotes access to healthcare and education and encourage employers to hire people with intellectual disabilities.
By recognizing these people as valuable citizens, we chip away at the wall of intolerance and exclusion that has too long plagued our society. The first step is to change society’s language. Today and tomorrow, we challenge you to change yours. Give two minutes tomorrow and sign your pledge on the banners in Lafortune and the dining halls.
Change the conversation. Spread the word to end the R-word.

Soeren Palumbo, Notre Dame Class of 2011, and Tim Shriver, Yale Class of 2011, are co-founders of the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign.
The views expressed in this column are those of the authors and not
necessarily those of The Observer.