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Bullying Revisited: Retarded?

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In our society of child psychology and guidance counseling, one would be hard pressed to find someone who does not acknowledge the pernicious consequences and prevalence of childhood bullying.

Take, for example, our friend Tyler. Tyler, now in his 20s, was verbally and emotionally abused inside and outside his classrooms growing up. Most would agree that the bullying he faced, while deplorable, was far from unique.

After all, everyone gets bullied. Right? Bullying is a rite of passage, a de facto hazing that all students endure. Right?

In short, no; bullying is preventable and anything but ubiquitous. In fact, recent studies show that only 25 percent of general education students are bullied. But how do we reconcile this with our common memory of rampant childhood and adolescent bullying?

Common knowledge dictates that the victims of bullying are typically those who stand apart from the all-powerful social norms. Bullied students are often those who look different, speak differently, and perhaps even learn differently.

And here we find the hidden victim. While only 25 percent of general education students report being bullied, this number swells to nearly 75 percent when speaking of special education students. Studies show that as many as three in four special education students face peer harassment, often chronic and pervasive, in their schools.

But just as we have traditionally sequestered and pigeonholed special education students, so too do many of us turn a blind eye to the deplorable social conditions these young people face. They routinely confront verbal, physical, and emotional assault in and around the buildings purported to be their safe havens, often while already struggling with issues of self-worth precipitated by an unaccommodating society. We choose to ignore -- or, yet worse, deny -- the silent epidemic of victimization and dehumanization infecting our schools and poisoning the social aspirations and abilities of our most abused demographic.

As you may have guessed, Tyler, like many victims of bullying, has a developmental disability, cerebral palsy. Because of his differences, bullies throughout Tyler's childhood assaulted his self-worth with a concoction of physical and emotional abuse. They all but shattered his self-image with their message of worthlessness, helplessness, and denigration. And their most efficient tool, their best crystallization and communication of this message, was the word "retard(ed)."

Despite "sticks and stones" upbringings, we all know the marks of physical abuse to be temporary, while the destructive power of language scars the psyche indelibly. Tyler, after years of being bullied with the R-word, internalized the degradation conveyed by it and began to identify himself as a "retard."

The R-word, its diagnostic history, and the modern synonymy it has accrued with concepts of undesirability and disdain are inextricably intertwined with the causes and consequences of the bullying of people with intellectual disabilities. It has become a convenient shorthand of exclusion, a linguistic vessel that captures and delivers centuries of stigma and discrimination from bully to bullied, abuser to abused. This word enables the harassment of students and adults with intellectual disabilities and the prejudice it embodies continues to bar this population from equal access to education, employment, and quality of life. An end to the R-word and attention to its consequences will contribute to the cure of this silent epidemic.

To stop this pattern of abuse, tens of thousands of young people across the country and around the world are today uniting in the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign. In their hallways and on their campuses, they are calling their peers and communities to pledge to end the use of the R-word and to create school and work environments where all students and employees are valued.

Their efforts have not gone unnoticed. Since its inception in 2008, Spread the Word to End the Word has collected over 150,000 pledges internationally. We invite you to join at www.r-word.org, where many of the pledges have been collected.

The elimination of the R-word will not end bullying but curtailing this verbal dehumanization will perhaps allow us to appreciate the intrinsic humanity in all of us, with and without intellectual disabilities.

As Tyler shows us, changing language not only transforms our attitudes towards others but also those towards ourselves: "I used to call myself a retard. But I don't anymore. Now, I call myself a person."

Join Special Olympics and Best Buddies in enabling that humanity in ourselves and others.

Spread the Word to End the R-Word.