Over the past five years, Spread the Word to End the Word has elicited thousands of stories and perspectives answering the question "what's wrong with 'retard'?" But none of them have been as poignant and powerful as that given by Jonathan Franklin Stephens, a self-advocate and author with Down syndrome. While many of us bicker over things like political correctness and our constitutional right to insult, Mr. Stephens lays bare the impact of our words:
"So, what's wrong with 'retard'? I can only tell you what it means to me and people like me when we hear it. It means that the rest of you are excluding us from your group. We are something that is not like you and something that none of you would ever want to be. We are something outside the 'in' group. We are someone that is not your kind."
Thanks to the voices of self-advocates like Mr. Stephens and student leaders around the world, people are starting to listen in ways they had never before. One conversation at time, one campus at a time, one country at a time, students of all ages have led a global effort to create a more inclusive society by bringing an end to a word and attitude that continue to marginalize and exclude people with intellectual disabilities. To date, this joined effort has persuaded millions to reconsider their hurtful use of "retard" and "retarded."
Mr. Stephens shows us why this choice of words changes not just his world but our world. Language not only informs us, language transforms us. People say that words can be divisive. But that's not the whole story. The words we use and the discrimination they engender don't create walls; they make us into walls.
When we use a word like "retard" or "retarded," we become the wall that keeps out Olivia, my beautiful 18-year-old sister with a developmental disability. We become the wall that condemns Mr. Stephens as undesirable and excluded. But just as tragically, we become the wall that isolates us from them, the wall that disables us from recognizing the wisdom imparted by Mr. Stephens and disables us from sharing the unwavering love offered by my sister.
Language transforms us. A call to reconsider the words we use with each other isn't censorship; it's an opportunity to find new abilities in ourselves. It's an opportunity to embrace those that have been excluded for so long. It's an opportunity to make up for lost time.
Just as language has transformed us into walls, we together have shown that it can transform us into bridges and open doors -- bridges to connect us and doors through which to welcome the excluded. When we replace words like "retard" with others like "peer," "co-worker," or "friend," we all benefit from a more complete and beautiful understanding of what it means to be human.
Today, we have the chance to build more bridges and open more doors than ever before. And it can start by changing one word.