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They Taught Us Words Are Powerless, and They Were Wrong

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TIM SHRIVER
Spread the Word
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They taught us that words are powerless:

"A little less conversation, a little more action."
"Sticks and stones."
"Actions speak louder than words."
"Rhetoric is a poor substitute for action."
Even DMX taught us that "talk is cheap."

But is it? We launched Spread the Word to End the Word six years ago as college sophomores with three basic beliefs, all diametrically opposed to the lessons of DMX, Theodore Roosevelt and company.

We believed that we, young advocates and self-advocates from the disability community, could show our friends and fellow students the devastating and dehumanizing impact of one word in particular: "retard(ed)." Next, we believed that recognizing the power of their words to harm would inspire young people to do the opposite: to use their words to change the hearts, minds and actions of their own communities for the better. Finally, we believed that young people -- empowered by a movement of their peers -- could change how we see and treat individuals with disabilities with their words, and then more.

Emboldened by these three ideas, advocates with and without intellectual disabilities have picked up the banner of Spread the Word to End the Word. From elementary school playgrounds and high school hallways to college campuses and corporate cafeterias, they have continued the work (work that began long before the two of us) to recognize the dignity and value of people with intellectual disabilities. Annually we now see action in over 2000 schools of all levels and events in communities around the world. And more than 420,000 people have pledged at r-word.org to end their hurtful use of the word "retard(ed)."

In schools across the country, young leaders have transformed their communities. Consider, for example, New Iberia Senior High School in New Iberia, Louisiana and North Canyon High School of Phoenix, Arizona. In both of these sprawling public high schools, young people defy expectations: leaders from student government to the varsity football team have decided to end the exclusion of their peers with intellectual disabilities by calling the student body to change its words, and then more. These schools have shown a change in language to be a precursor to a smile, a shared cafeteria table, a friendship, an end to social abuse.

But these changes have not come easily. Six years ago, we were met with stiff opposition. Online, we were repeatedly assaulted by vitriolic comments. We were told (forcibly) that our efforts were a violation of free speech, a small-minded exercise in political correctness or just another example of the "euphemism treadmill." Most criticism was easy enough to overcome. After all, calling attention to the destructive power of abusive language is hardly censorship. One critique, however, was not so easy to shake: "Changing language alone is a waste of time." Change, critics said, is about more than words.

Indeed, change is about more than words. Change, we believe, is about words, and then more. The words we use serve as filters that color or even distort our understanding of ourselves and those around us. And when we remove filters tinted with years of stigma and prejudice, then we can begin to see each other's humanity a bit more clearly, and begin to act accordingly. A change in words, and then more.

Today, we ask that you help us spread the word to end the word "retard," and then more. And then to end the dehumanization, social marginalization, and belittlement. And then to end the social walls that continue to segregate people with and without intellectual disabilities.

Today, we ask that you help us change our words, and then more.

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 on Wednesday, March 5. To find out more about the Spread the Word campaign, please visit the website. Join us in taking the pledge at R-Word.org. Read all posts in the series here.

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