There was a time when I was ignorant to what the R-word was and what it meant to use it, and used it only in a joking manner. I did not fully comprehend the meaning of my words until I met Justin, who was my first Special Olympics Unified Sports teammate. Special Olympics and Unified Sports changed my perspective on the R-word entirely.
My name is Madison Wetherell and I am 17-year-old and currently a senior at Raymond S. Kellis High School in Glendale, Ariz. I have been involved in Special Olympics and Special Olympics Unified Sports (where people with and without intellectual disabilities play on the same team) for four years now. I am the Vice President of our Special Olympics Unified Schools Club at Kellis and a Varsity athlete in other sports on campus.
What does the R-word mean to me? "Retard," also known as the R-word, according to the dictionary, means to "delay or hold back in terms of progress, development, or accomplishment." But the R-word, as most people use it (not as found in the dictionary), doesn't mean anything to me and should not be used to define a person. What I mean by that is that essentially the R-word has no meaning until someone uses it in a negative way, either to describe a person or an action.
When I decided to join Unified Sports, I had unknowingly entered an entirely new world where things as little as a high five mattered and being involved was never an issue. It never mattered how different you were because everyone is unique in their own way and the focus was on the abilities - the disabilities did not mean anything. This is where I met Justin, who is one of my best friends. On the first day when I had walked across the threshold into Unified Sports, I remember Justin running up to me to give me a high five and then reach out to shake my hand and ask what my name was and I did not realize that one experience could change my perspective on what the R-word truly meant.
I did not realize that it only takes one person to make a difference and to me that person was Justin: throughout the time we spent together he had taught me and everyone that a smile is the best medicine, and that no matter what, you can always find a way to laugh off the bad things.
Suddenly I became an advocate. For me, the R-word had come to be nothing but a word, because the meaning no longer applied to people in my eyes. It is easy to point out the negatives, in a world filled with so many positives, because we humans see the bad. Through my Special Olympics experiences and my involvement in Unified Sports, I have learned that the positives are not that hard to find and that every day is a new day and we should live each day like that.
The R-word has lost what it was originally intended to mean and now we have a whole week dedicated to stopping the use of that word in a mean way, because a word is just a word until someone gives it a meaning. And a word no longer means anything when that meaning is taken away, maybe not physically, but by spreading knowledge and truth and taking away the ignorance. We can eliminate the R-word.
Every day is a new opportunity to make someone smile or laugh, to make someone's day with a simple high five or to change someone's opinion of something because for me all it took was one day to change my life for the better. It only took one person to make me realize that life is too short to be focused on the bad, and it will take all of us to eliminate the R-word. To me the R-word is slowly losing its meaning, and rightfully so, because no label, given by others, should be a defining factor for any human being. Anyone who can live day to day with their true beauty and compassion for everyone is "able" in the best sense of the word.
Join me in choosing to use respectful language and to not use the R-word in a derogatory or hurtful way. Take the pledge to not use R-word today at R-word.org
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 2. To find out more about the Spread the Word campaign, please visit the website. Join us in taking the pledge at R-Word.org.