The Power of Words

Kyrstin Spens
Kyrstin Spens
Kyrstin Spens looks to the basket in front of her mother Angie. Special Olympics Utah hosted a seasonal event at the University of Utah Friday and Saturday. Events for people who wanted to participate included Basketball and Bocce. | Photo: | Link | Special Olympics, Kyrstin Spens, Handicapped, Disorder,

The campaign in the inclusion of all people

"When you say the 'R' word it makes people feel bad and it hurts my feelings' Instead, you can call me a leader, a hero, or a human being, but please don't call me the 'R' word."'Dony Knight, Special Olympics Oregon Athlete

Shamefully, we have all used it out of ignorance: the "R-word." The R-word is the word "retard" or "retarded," used to degrade another person, as the word is associated with people who have intellectual or developmental disabilities. Unfortunately, we tend not to be conscious of the fact that words do matter. Words have a powerful effect. Words can hurt.

The R-word came into focus in late October of 2012 when controversial, conservative pundit, Ann Coulter, sent the offensive tweet, "I highly approve of [Mitt] Romney's decision to be kind and gentle to the retard (referring to President Barack Obama)," after the Presidential debate. The next day, John Franklin Stephens, a Global Messenger for the Special Olympics (and a Special Olympics athlete), published an open letter to Coulter, in response to her persistent use of the R-word.

In his letter, Stephens describes, "' I do process information more slowly than the rest of you' it has taken me all day to figure out how to respond to your use of the R-word last night... I realized you just wanted to belittle the President by linking him to people like me' as an insult."

People with intellectual or developmental disabilities face a constant battle against ignorance, and more importantly, in gaining respect and inclusion. However, with the help of advocacy groups, such as the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) and the ARC: for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, these individuals do not face the battle alone.

The AAIDD and ARC champion the ideals of complete inclusion and participation of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in society, particularly in the recognition of their contributions in their communities, entitled to respect, dignity, and equality, as an active member in their communities. In connection, society can greatly benefit from the diversity of people, including people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, as they are defined by their strengths and abilities, not their disability.

Together, advocates and people with intellectual or developmental disabilities fight, and progress, in the ultimate aspiration of inclusion and equality, where the AAIDD promotes "progressive policies, sound research, effective practices, and universal human rights for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities." According to, a landmark in the battle for inclusion and respect for all people with intellectual disabilities was established October 5, 2010 when President Obama signed bill S.2781, championed by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY), into law, known as "Rosa's Law," inspired by 9-year-old Rosa Marcellino, a child with Down syndrome. Rosa's mother never allowed the R-word in their home, where none of Rosa's siblings every referred to her as that term; she learned Rosa was labeled "retarded" at school and sought to introduce a bill to change the terminology in Maryland state law, with the help of other parents and the state delegate. A hearing was held on the implications of changing the terminology before it would be considered in the Maryland General Assembly, where the most compelling testimony came from Rosa's brother, 11-year-old Nick. "What you call my sister is how you will treat her. If you believe she's 'retarded,' it invites taunting, stigma' bullying and' the slammed doors of being treated with respect and dignity."

The law removes the terms "mental retardation" and "mentally retarded" from federal health, education, and labor policy, replacing the terms with people-first language, "individual with an intellectual disability" and "intellectual disability." Chairman and CEO of the Special Olympics, Dr. Timothy P. Shriver, viewed the signing of the bill into law as continued progress in giving everyone respect, value, and acceptance, stating, "The President's signature and the unanimous support of both the House and Senate show that our elected officials understand and embrace this ideal."

The Special Olympics has long championed the use of people-first language. The Special Olympics originated in the 1950s and early 1960s when Eunice Kennedy Shriver realized how unfairly people with intellectual disabilities were being treated; many children with intellectual disabilities didn't have a place to play. Shriver sprung into action, holding a summer day camp for young people with disabilities, in her own backyard. Shriver's ultimate goal was learning "what these children could do in sports and other activities'and not dwell on what they could not do." What began as a backyard summer camp evolved into the largest movement devoted to the promotion of "respect and human dignity for those with intellectual disabilities." The first International Special Olympics Summer Games was held in Illinois, with 1,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities, from 26 states and Canada, participating in track and field, and swimming.

In 2008, the Special Olympics launched in efforts of combating the derogatory use of the R-word in common usage, and leading protests against the media use of the word, particularly in response to the film, Tropic Thunder's, continual use of the word. "Spread the Word to End the Word" Co-founders and youth activists, Tim Shriver and Soeren Palumbo, were able to gain support through viral and grassroots methods, yielding in resounding change, through emphasizing the pervasive use of the R-word in mainstream media. The F/X network currently includes the R-word as "one of the three words that are not allowed to be broadcast." MTV now bleeps the word like other curse words or slurs on shows such as "The Real World."

In 2009, the youth-led campaign, "Spread the Word to End the Word," was launched with rallies in schools (K-12) and universities across the nation, enlisting people to combat the use of the R-word, collecting over 100,000 signatures in "pledg[ing] inclusion and respect towards all people." As described by, the campaign seeks to raise society's consciousness over the implications in using the R-word, which are "dehumanizing and hurtful," asking people to stop using the R-word as the starting-point in creating acceptance and cultivating inclusion for all people, as well as using people-first language, as "Language affects attitudes and attitudes affect action." Shriver claims the youth of today are seeking to make change, "to channel their passions in meaningful ways," as the Special Olympics is a vehicle for them to "make [that] meaningful change in the world."

Why is the R-word hurtful?
As described by, advocates and individuals with disabilities agree that the use of the R-word fosters exclusion, as the intent of the word is generalization. The R-word erroneously associates intellectual disability with being dumb or stupid. When people use the term to describe someone, they are saying the person is as stupid as a person with intellectual disabilities, therefore, characterizing people with disabilities as stupid. To Stephens, the use of the R-word signifies people with disabilities as people outside the "in" group. "We are someone that is not your kind. I want you to know that it hurts to be out here, alone." Stephens shares his fear, "It hurts and scares me when I am the only person with intellectual disabilities on the bus and young people start making 'retard' jokes or references' It hurts and it is scary."

The R-word is also considered hate speech, as it is based upon ill-conceived beliefs and prejudices. Palumbo astutely observes the use of the R-word as an expression of hate, through a "pre-emptive dismissal of' [people with intellectual disabilities], your dehumanization of them, your mockery of them,' It's more hateful than racism,' sexism,' more hateful than anything." Karleigh Jones, a Special Olympics New Zealand athlete, agrees, as the use of the R-word "offends people with intellectual and developmental disabilities as well as the people that care for and support them."

Rather than focusing on the negative connotations behind "disabilities," John Franklin Stephens focuses on the positives in his life. In a 2008 "Opinion" post for the, Stephens described, "I am a' man with Down Syndrome. I am very lucky. Even though I was born with this intellectual disability' I live and work in the community' count[ing] as friends the people I went to school with and the people I meet in my job' I realize I am a voice for other people with intellectual disabilities who cannot speak easily for themselves. I thank God that he gave me this chance to be someone's voice."

Words have power. Words have a resounding impact. It is the choice in words you use, and the manner in which you use them that yield that power. Rather than using words derived out of ignorance, harboring negativity, we, as a society, should consciously make the choice to use words to embrace individuality, and our human connection to cultivate inclusiveness. "It comes down to the human connection we all share. No matter where we come from' we are all human, and we all deserve that requisite respect," observes Palumbo.

Stephens remains a light of positivity: "' Ms. Coulter, you, and society, need to learn that being compared to me should be considered a badge of honor. No one overcomes more than we do and still loves life so much. Come join us someday at Special Olympics. See if you can walk away with your heart unchanged. A friend you haven't made yet, John Franklin Stephens."

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 12:08 PM EDT | More details


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