Brenden VanBruwaene, 16, looks intently, seriously, at the camera as he starts the public service announcement. His words are simple and direct: “When I hear people saying retarded, it makes me feel upset and … sad a lot. That's what I feel.”
Brenden would know.
He is a sophomore, a friend to all, who walks through school halls listening to music with his headphones and iPod and flashing happy smiles. He has big dreams — to be a famous actor or singer someday.
He also has Down syndrome, a fact of life Brenden will passionately tell you has shown him how important it is to be kind and respectful to everyone.
He doesn't hear the word “retard” much, but he was called it once last year. A friend stood up for him. Still, he hurt.
“This is,” he says, “not right.”
Brenden knows — which is why he and his school have joined a nationwide campaign to eradicate what they call the R-word as it is used today.
Words are powerful. When strung together in careful and thoughtful precision, like a meticulously embroidered tapestry, they are beautiful, magical. They touch, inspire, break down barriers and connect us. But tossed about ignorantly, without attention or respect for meaning, and words wound. They tear us down and apart.
“With any word, it's not what you say,” Karen Riley says, “it's what you mean when you say it.”
Riley is an associate professor and chair of the educational research and policy department at the University of Denver's Morgridge College of Education. She also has spent many years working with children who have neurodevelopmental disorders, such as Down syndrome.
In its clinical form, she notes, the word retardation is benign. It connotes anything that doesn't move at the rate it should be moving — it's slower or retarded. But that's not how the word, in any of its derivative forms, is generally used today.
“We know what it means,” one high school sophomore said, “but we just have a different definition for it.”
The definition: An expression of exasperation. Stupid.
Riley tells her students this true story: A mother pulling into a school accidentally bumped into the car parked in front. The driver of the parked car said to the mother, “What are you, a retard?” The mother then proceeded to help her child, with Down syndrome, from her car. The man apologized profusely.
“Would it have been OK if she didn't have a child with Down syndrome?” Riley asks. “As long as nobody is there to hear it, is it OK to use that word? If you know it's hurtful, then why do we say it at all?”
Retard, of course, isn't the only word in this category. There's the N-word, the derogatory term for African-Americans, and gay, which when used to mean dumb or ridiculous also implies homosexuals are lesser than others. Kim Gorgens, an assistant professor of psychology at DU and past chair of the American Psychological Association's Committee on Disability Issues, would argue that even words like crazy and cripple fall into this classification.
“These words become episodes that are so denigrating and so harmful to groups of people,” she says. “Recognizing how you play a part in that problem is really powerful.”
But the R-word — with its connection to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities — faces a unique battle.
“These are our most vulnerable members of society,” Riley says. “It's difficult for them to advocate for themselves. … As a society, isn't it our responsibility to make sure you're not disrespected? If you can't defend yourself, isn't it our responsibility to do so?”
Soeren Palumbo, whose sister has an intellectual disability, thought so. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he and Tim Shriver, a Yale University graduate, started the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign in 2009.
Advocacy also has come from the federal government with Rosa's Law, passed in 2010, which replaces “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability” in all federal legislation.
Today, the Spread the Word campaign is a youth-driven effort by Special Olympics and Best Buddies, organizations that work with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and provide resources to schools to promote the campaign. The official annual day of awareness is the first Wednesday in March.
“It's been a huge platform for a lot of young people in the schools,” says Mandi DeWitt of Special Olympics Colorado. Colorado, she adds, is one of eight states with the highest youth participation in such activities.
At Castle View High School in Castle Rock, where Brenden attends school and where he was elected this year as Homecoming Royalty for his class, hundreds of students signed a pledge to stop using the R-word. As part of the campaign, they stopped at tables at the cafeteria's entrance to scrawl their names on banners.
“I've been saying that word for a while now,” one young man said. “I've not been the kindest. This is sort of a way to make me stop saying that.”
“My friend said it the day before,” another student said. “I told her to not say that — `It insulted me.' That's not the way I am.”
Pam Baker, Brenden's special education teacher, fought back tears as she watched student after student sign the pledge. “They were part of history,” she said, “paving the way for others not to hear the word retarded and make it extinct.”
In the cafeteria, the public service announcement plays. Students sitting at the tables look up at the screen. There's Brenden.
“I say `retarded' is the wrong word to say,” he says to his audience. “And that's what I know.”
That's what we should all know.
Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-566-4110.