As children, we heard the R-word all the time -- on the playground, on the bus, even coming out of our own mouths. Even as adults we hear the R-word being used in so-called polite company. So how do we make sure that our children know that using the R-word is not okay? And how do we avoid feeling like hypocrites?
That's what I'm thinking about at the start of this month's "Spread the Word to End the Word" campaign. Seven years ago Special Olympics created a national campaign to get young people to pledge to stop using the R-word. The campaign gathered a quick head of steam in 2012 when Ann Coulter called President Obama a "retard" and vigorously defended her "colloquial" use of the word. The backlash from the Special Olympics community was breathtaking. John Franklin Stephens, a young man with Downs Syndrome, became a national hero for his kind, but firm, response to Ms. Coulter. All of a sudden, we adults were having conversations about name-calling and acceptance. Ann Coulter's display of hatefulness should have been enough of a lesson for most adults. So why then, just 18 months ago, did Bill Maher feel compelled to use the R-word when referring to Sarah Palin's son? Is it enough for adults to say they "didn't mean it" or that they were invoking political incorrectness for the sake of a laugh? What about when the R-word slips out of our mouths in the midst of our frustration? Is it okay because we weren't directing our name-calling to someone with disabilities but instead to the driver that just cut us off? I don't think its okay, even if things were different when we were children. I don't think there's any justification for using the R-word or the n-word or any hate speech for that matter.
Lucky for us, neither do millions of young Americans who are a part of a new generation that knows better. Character education is imbedded in their school curriculum. Anti-bullying is as much a part of school for them as recess was for us. Through initiatives like Special Olympics' Project UNIFY, our children are learning to recognize the gifts that each of us has been given. Through "Spread the Word" campaigns, our children are taught that the R-word is offensive and derogatory. Project UNIFY builds on Special Olympics' foundation of "unified" sports in which athletes with and without intellectual disabilities compete together. In our schools, students have the opportunity to become leaders in creating communities of acceptance and inclusion. Bowling parties, "Fans in the Stands," and pickup unified basketball games at lunch are just a few examples of what Project Unify brings to schools. Along the way, students learn respect and make friends, all while promoting social inclusion. By hosting Disability Awareness Fairs, Project UNIFY club members give their teachers and classmates a chance to experience what it feels like to have a disability. With loud and incessant instructions being broadcast through headphones, a teacher is asked to complete a series of complex tasks. Only now can he understand what it feels like to have an attention deficit problem.
Project UNIFY doesn't just benefit our children with intellectual disabilities. Project UNIFY members discover new strengths and abilities that shape their futures. They learn firsthand that working together with people of all abilities yields better and longer-lasting solutions. They become more compassionate advocates for others and understand the responsibility that comes with being role models for change. For most of our children, fortunately, taking a pledge not to use the R-word isn't that big of a deal.
Unfortunately, it seems that adults are the ones who need to be reminded that people with all kinds of differences should be accepted and celebrated. We need to be reminded that it's wrong to use the R-word in any circumstance. I know its wrong when my friend shares with me how hurt she is when someone calls her the R-word. I see the sadness in her eyes and the humiliation as she casually shrugs her shoulders, as if to convince me that words don't matter. But I can see that they do. More importantly, though, I can see the happiness that inclusion creates. At our Project UNIFY Youth Summit last month, I witnessed 160 teenagers of all abilities having fun together -- brainstorming program ideas to bring back to their schools and laughing together over shared experiences.
We tell our children not to use the R-word. We encourage them to take part in their school's "Spread the Word" campaigns and to take the pledge. This month, and every month, I'm asking adults to join me in taking the pledge too. Let's not use the R-word, ever. Not in humor, not in frustration -- never. Let's pledge to model for our children the acceptance and inclusion we hope to see in them. Let's pledge to work hard, right alongside our children, to make our world better, one person at a time.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Special Olympics in conjunction with Spread the Word to End the Word awareness day onWednesday, March 4. To find out more about the Spread the Word campaign, please visit the website. Join us in taking the pledge at R-Word.org. After you pledge #Respect at r-word.org, carry the torch for respect in Special Olympics' #UnifiedRelay. Learn more here. Read all posts in the series here.