Trading ‘R’ Words

Colleenn - Havertown, Pennsylvania
Entered on December 30, 2008
Age Group: 18 - 30
Themes: respect

I believe that respect begins with language. I can’t remember when I first heard the saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” but it has been haunting me for years.

I am a senior in college and a member of a club called Best Buddies. Started by Anthony K. Shriver in 1989, Best Buddies is a nonprofit organization, “dedicated to enhancing the lives of people with intellectual disabilities by providing opportunities for one-to-one friendships and integrated employment.” Chapters of this organization can be found in schools and communities worldwide. I joined Best Buddies in high school, and have been volunteering ever since.

Recently, I planned a spaghetti dinner for my university’s chapter of Best Buddies. At this event, I learned a lot about my fellow group members. I learned that Kenny is a talented mechanic. “You let me listen to your car for a few seconds and I’ll be able to tell you what’s wrong with it,” he assured me. Lisa shared her plans for the weekend, “we’re going to dinner to celebrate the finishing of my play. I’ve been working on it for three years.” And Duane, with his kind smile and gentlemanly demeanor, sat drawing the most beautiful pictures I have ever seen.

Kenny, Lisa, and Duane are not volunteers. They all fall under the category of “individuals with intellectual disabilities,” or in Best Buddies’ terms, “buddies.” Best Buddies has introduced me to countless individuals like Kenny, Lisa, and Duane – people who refuse to be limited by their disabilities and deserve to be recognized for their abilities. Over the years my buddies have taught me what it means to respect others.

Walking home from that dinner, I began reflecting on the connection between respect and language – and the word ‘retard.’ I was thinking about the wonderful, talented people in Best Buddies and how inaccurate and unfortunate it is that the ‘r’ word is used in reference to them.

The ‘r’ word is used carelessly and frequently, especially among young people. The trend now is to use this word to indicate that someone or something is “stupid”, “lame”, or an “idiot”: These uses of the ‘r’ word create a link between something undesirable and individuals with intellectual disabilities. Forget the sticks and stones, words are powerful things. I believe respect needs to be present in one’s language in order for it to genuinely be present in one’s behavior.

All of the hard work, all of the success that individuals with intellectual disabilities have achieved, is voided when the ‘r’ word is used. It’s as if it doesn’t matter. Kenny’s skills at mechanics, Lisa’s writing, and Duane’s art are overlooked, obscured by their disabilities, and a trendy word.

I believe in obliterating the word “retard” from popular vocabulary. There’s only room for one ‘r’ word, and that is “respect.”