Spread This: Be Good to People With Intellectual Disabilities

Two hands cup a heart in a caring and loving way. The heart symbolises love and relationships
Two hands cup a heart in a caring and loving way. The heart symbolises love and relationships

Today marks the 7th Annual Day of Action for Spread the Word to End the Word, a campaign we launched in 2009 as a way to eliminate the hurtful use of the words "retard" and "retarded." Since then, we've been joined by millions of people across the US and around the world, each with their own story.

As we reflect on the stories that make up Spread the Word to End the Word, we've come to realize it as a campaign less concerned with ending a word as it is with spreading one.

Soeren hoped to spread the word that his sister Olivia -- a young woman with intellectual disabilities -- is a person worth listening to and including because she improves the lives of everyone around her. Frank Stephens has been spreading the word that he and 200 million others with intellectual disabilities around the world have hopes and fears, insecurities and human value that are dismissed and destroyed by the use of the word "retard" and so many other behaviors that continue to stigmatize and exclude. Timbo has spread the word that young people, with and without intellectual disabilities, are the leaders to follow if we wish to once and for all build a world of dignity and respect. Together, we've heard millions of stories about spreading the word to end a lingering prejudice.

This prejudice that continues to plague people with intellectual disabilities is complicated. It's enduring. It's engrained. It's often invisible, unnoticed, overlooked. Overcoming it calls for ending some entrenched behaviors, yes, but even more, it requires that we start and spread new ones.

Today, we ask that you join us in spreading a simple idea.

Why a simple idea? When we started seven years ago, we thought that people wanted a complicated answer to this complicated prejudice. We couched our answers in terms of free speech, psycho-linguistics, and terministic screens. But with society seven years advanced, we've decided to share a real, simple answer. We hope everyone is ready.

Be good to people with intellectual disabilities.

Yep. That's it. Be good to people with intellectual disabilities.

We know that might sound naïve or patronizing at first - please stick with us. We're not asking you to pat someone with intellectual disabilities on the head (or yourself on the back) or let him or her take your place in line. And we're not asking you to passively tolerate from afar and simply cause no harm. We're saying that shaking loose a stubborn stigma requires a heavy dose of authentic human goodness shared with a population often starved of it.

Making the decision to treat a population as people over punch line is one way. But it's not the only way. People with intellectual disabilities often need one more friend more than one fewer bully. If you are a bully, stop. If you're not a friend, start. Each of our own worlds of respect and connectedness begins with a simple word, a simple action.

Seek out someone with an intellectual disability and open yourself to join his or her world, whether it's at the lunch table, around the water cooler, on the playing field, or anywhere in between. Get off the sidelines and join; goodness and respect are contact sports that don't happen from a distance. Spread yourself with your words and with your actions. It's that simple.

But simple does not mean easy. Our world can make this simple directive very hard. As students, we're often put in different classrooms. As adults, we don't often share the workplace. It's hard to be a friend to someone you don't see. It's even harder to befriend someone society tells you isn't worth the friendship.

But hard does not mean complicated. If you want to join us in building a world of respect and connectedness, then your directive is clear and simple: be good to people with intellectual disabilities.

Is it that simple? Yes. Will it work? We're sure of it. Will it be worth it? Definitely.

After all, other than a long legacy of social abuse and the continued marginalization of more than 200 million of our fellow human beings...what do we have to lose? We have so much to gain.

Spread the word.

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 onWednesday, March 4. To find out more about the Spread the Word campaign, please visit the website. Join us in taking the pledge at R-Word.org. After you pledge #Respect at r-word.org, carry the torch for respect in Special Olympics' #UnifiedRelay. Learn more here. Read all posts in the series here.