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
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
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.
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
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
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,
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
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
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