Stopping The R-word Is Not Enough: Culture -- Not Just Language -- Must Change

Charlotte Bobcats' Ramon Sessions, left, shares a laugh with Colleen Callahan, right, during a drill as the NBA team held a b
Charlotte Bobcats' Ramon Sessions, left, shares a laugh with Colleen Callahan, right, during a drill as the NBA team held a basketball clinic for more than 150 Special Olympics athletes from across the state at their training facility in Charlotte, N.C.,Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

My cousin Hannah speaks just a few words: ice, pool, no, me, yes, go. The 11-year-old can't verbalize her feelings, but she's one of the happiest kids I know. She giggles when the Tickle Monster comes out to play, her infectious laughter pealing through the house, bringing out my own belly laughs.

I label her as the most energetic out of my 18 cousins, but other people label her differently, seeing her disability as her identity. Hannah is not alone: 18.7 percent of Americans has a disability or 54 million Americans, according to a 2010 census report. Of those, 12.3 million people age six and older need assistance with daily activities. Too many people use the word "retarded" to describe them or anyone with disabilities, even bad things or anything out of the ordinary.

As a fierce First Amendment advocate, I do not condone an outright ban on this word or on any others. Censorship has no place in democracy, but self-examination does. "Retard," when used as a synonym for 'dumb' or 'stupid,' reinforces "painful stereotypes of people with intellectual disabilities being less valued members of humanity," according to the Special Olympics website. We can easily find better, less painful words than "retard" out of the 171,476 words in the Oxford English Dictionary. "Ridiculous" often works well, and for mnemonic ease, it begins with the same letter.

The Special Olympics recognized this linguistic and cultural issue in 2008 and launched, a website with the mission "Spread the word to end the word," to encourage individuals and organizations to stop using the r-word. The campaign culminates each year through partnership with Best Buddies International in a nationwide day of awareness on the first Wednesday of each March - March 6 this year. Schools and communities nationwide host rallies, walks and other events to foster respect and inclusion of all citizens, regardless of disabilities.

Barack Obama helped lessen the stigma in 2010 by signing "Rosa's Law," removing the terms "mental retardation" and "mentally retarded" from federal health, education and labor policy and replacing the words with "intellectual disability" and "individual with an intellectual disability." This law continues national conversations about respect and the word's connotation.

The larger goal behind "Spread the word to end the word" is not to replace the r-word with another equally stigmatizing phrase, but to increase inclusion for those who may speak, act or move differently. When I go home to the Philadelphia suburbs, one of my friends picks up conversation with me about fire alarms -- his Asperger's Syndrome fixation -- when I run into him at a local restaurant. Other boys teased Joseph during recess, calling him that hateful r-word, but my friends and I brought him cupcakes on his birthday when few others wanted to talk about the intricacies of fire alarms.

The core of this dilemma is not about a word. It's about Joseph, other kids on the playground, adults who have the same right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as any American. The Americans with Disabilities Act has protected against discrimination based on disability since 1990, but law alone cannot and should not safeguard our day-to-day interactions.

The root of this issue that goes beyond linguistics, our cultural sensitivity, must shift. A 2010 study published in the international journal "Review of Disability Studies" demonstrated the possibility for quick change through new forms of communication. Two St. Cloud State University professors researched the use of "retard" in the top 400 YouTube videos containing this word and concluded, "establishing rules about language use is clearly a simplistic solution to a complex problem." The authors noted effective activism that changed the title of hip-hop group The Black Eyed Peas' song, "Let's Get Retarded" to "Let's Get it Started" as an example of the possibility for progress.

The song revision demonstrates an effective cultural change that does not replace "retarded" with another pejorative word for those with intellectual disabilities. America has demonstrated its ability to change its collective lexicon: Many hateful words used to describe certain ethnicities disappeared with greater acceptance and respect for people who were not seeking anything different from those who stepped off the Mayflower.

By mid-February, 341,895 people have signed an online pledge to end their use of the r-word and thousands more have done so in schools and other organizations, yet the shift in broader attitude and language will not occur solely through website signatures. Hannah can't tell anyone to sign the pledge or to look beyond her verbal barrier to see her vivacious personality. But Hannah, my grade school friend and the millions of other Americans with intellectual disabilities deserve the effort.