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Moving Beyond Stereotypes
By Susan Hines-Brigger

Q U I C K S C A N

Wider Problem
Be the Change
For Teens and Kids: Who Are Your Heroes?


I'd like to tell you a little bit about Sam. Sam is my friend's son. He just recently turned two years old. He loves music, his mom and dad and his dog, Vito. He's got a smile that can light up a room, and is not overly fond of chocolate. Oh, and by the way, Sam also happens to have Down syndrome.

I don't think that last part matters a lot because the whole of Sam is so much greater than that one little part. But unfortunately, that's probably what most people see first when they meet him.

So why am I writing about Sam? Well, it's because recently I heard someone using a word that I don't think describes Sam at all. Nor does it describe the other people I know with developmental delays or disabilities. The word is retarded.

I have found that all too often these days we toss around words without really stopping to think about their implications or the message we're sending when we say them.

And the people behind the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign agree. The campaign (www.specialolympics.org/spread-the-word-to-end-the-word.aspx) was started last year and "is one element of Special Olympics' vision of a world where everyone matters, where everyone is accepted and, most importantly, where everyone is respected and valued," according to the group's Web site. Events are held each March 3 and throughout the year to raise awareness of this issue.

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Wider Problem

But the R-word isn't the only word people tend to throw around with reckless abandon. You can frequently hear derogatory terms used as part of conversations in everyday settings. Jokes or comments are frequently made about individuals based on their abilities, ethnic or religious backgrounds, social class, political leanings, hair color, skin color, sexual orientation or weight. The list goes on. Even our Church is not immune.

Oftentimes when someone calls a person out for using such derogatory labels, the usual response is, "I was only joking" or "I didn't really mean anything by it." But the reality is that words are powerful. They can incite hate, inflict pain and cause division.

Be the Change

To say that we are outraged by the use of these derogatory words is one thing. A better course of action is to do something about it. Here are some suggestions:

Speak up. If you hear someone using a derogatory phrase or word toward someone, call him or her on it. Let that person know that you find the use of such language unacceptable and hurtful.

It's not always easy to speak up, but just remember the words of Protestant Pastor Martin Niemöller in reference to the Holocaust: "First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me." (Different versions of this quote exist, but this is the version that hangs in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.)

Take the pledge. Visit www.r-word.org and take the pledge to stop using the R-word. While you're at it, why not make an effort to remove other potentially hurtful language from your vocabulary?

Stop and think. Sometimes hurtful words escape our mouths out of anger, frustration or ignorance. Sometimes we may even think we're being funny. Weigh your words before speaking. It could make a big difference.

For instance, think about Sam every time you, or someone you know, uses the words retard or retarded as a putdown or a punch line. Maybe then people will stop.

Get involved. A lot of times we make fun of or dismiss things or people we don't know or understand. Seek out volunteer opportunities with organizations such as the Special Olympics. It's a lot more difficult to insult a friend than a person we don't really know.

 

Even if we're not saying derogatory things toward others, sometimes our unspoken actions can send the wrong message. For instance, stop and reflect on the types of movies and TV shows you watch and music to which you listen. How do they portray people with certain types of disabilities? Are they used as the butt of jokes? Are they spoken of in a less than kind way? Is language used that is derogatory? Or do you check out the magazines on the rack that cut down people for their size, hairstyles or fashion sense? Are there songs you listen to that contain lyrics that others could find offensive?

If you encounter such songs, TV shows or movies, take a stand and make a choice not to support that type of entertainment. There are certainly other options out there that do not see disabilities or differences as simply a punch line.

To make this endeavor more concrete, gather some friends or your youth group and hold a discussion on how differences among people are portrayed in pop culture. Find examples that celebrate or look to educate about those differences. Have everyone bring some type of popular entertainment that casts a positive light on differences among people. It could be a movie, a song, a TV show, a book or a magazine article.

Talk about why you brought that particular piece of pop culture and also talk about ways that each of you might be contributing to the way culture puts down people deemed different from the norm. Then brainstorm some ways to counter that trend. Doing this activity as a group may help everyone hold each other accountable.

 

Do you have ideas or suggestions for topics you'd like to see addressed in this column? If so, send them to me at "Faith-filled Family," 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202-6498, or e-mail them to Family@franciscanmedia.org.


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