The First Time I “Spread the Word”

I was twelve when I went away to summer camp for the first time. After evening reflections on our first night, the senior counselor in my cabin asked us to go around and say our biggest pet peeve. Most people’s pet peeves were unsurprising, like chewing loudly or being late.

“Please don’t use the word ‘retard’ or ‘retarded’ around me,” I said when my turn came, “My sister has autism and it really hurts me.”

I was twelve years old and that was the first time that I had ever really voiced that this word upset me. I was meeting these girls for the first time, so there was a blank slate. I had an open forum to define this as a boundary for me.

In truth, “pet peeve” doesn’t begin to capture what the r-word was to me. It was a verbal slap in the face. Even some of my best friends, who knew my sister and my family, used it constantly. Any annoying task an adult asked us to do “retarded”. When the computer crashed, it was “retarded”. “Retard’ was the putdown of choice in an argument. If someone really wanted to put an exclamation point on it, they’d be sure to say it in a funny voice and accompany it with a gesture, smacking a limp hand across their chest. All of it would draw lots of laughs from everyone but me.

In my family, “Different does not mean less” was more than a saying for us — it was a way of life. I was raised loving my sister for who she was. She didn’t play or communicate the way I did, and there were some things that she needed support to do, but that didn’t matter. I loved her and was proud of her, and still am.

Growing up, the r-word was an ever present reminder that the rest of the world didn’t think that way. Words get their power by how they are used in a culture. In our culture it was clear: a particularly low name to call someone or something was the r-word, because my sister and people with intellectual disabilities like her were viewed by many as lower than the rest of us. The r-word kept them labeled as “other”, definitely “less” than fully human. That way of thinking is what has kept people with disabilities hidden, stigmatized, and abused for so long.

When I made the request not to use the r-word that first time at camp, the other girls expressed surprise. They hadn’t made the connection between the word and the people it hurt. They made a concerted effort to break that verbal habit and stop using the word. The experience empowered me to start calling people out when they used it. I began to do that more in high school and college. Then some of my newly-aware friends told me they had started to call people out on it too. We “spread the word to end the word” within our social circles and I started hearing it less.

It makes me so happy to see the movement this has become. However, I hope that my story reminds you that Spread the Word is more than one-day big event and a signature on a pledge. It is a commitment to think about the language that you use daily. It is the courage to speak up when you hear other people use it and tell them why it is not acceptable to you. It is an ongoing mission to promote respect. It is going to take all of us, every day.

If you have a story, video, photo, poem, essay, guide, dance, (or anything else) to share with the world, follow the three easy steps in this link or publish your story on Medium and email it to dbellows@specialolympics.org. If you prefer, you could also put your story into a word document, let us know whether you would like it published under your name or anonymously, and email it to dbellows@specialolympics.org.

Pledge your support to end the R-Word here.