The R Word, a TedTalk Project

View Maddie's TedTalk Project HERE.  

In honor of the upcoming Race4Respect™, I wanted to share a school project with you about the R word.  Even though the race is in celebration of Down Syndrome Awareness, it is about respecting one's contributions; what he or she has to offer, rather than being treated as someone "less than".  It is about showing individuals with Down syndrome, or any disability, that they deserve the same respect as you and I, the same respect as ANY person.  This is why I was ecstatic when Soeren Palumbo, co-founder of Spread the Word to End the Word Campaign came to DC as our guest speaker for the 2015 Race4Respect™.   My oldest daughter was 14 years old at the time, she was just finishing middle school.  I knew Soeren's words were important for her and her peers to hear and to learn from.  I knew she would take them to heart, but I could never have imagined the seed that had been planted.  

With my daughter's permission, I am sharing her final project from her Power of Persuasion class at school (St. Andrew's Episcopal School).  It is a TedTalk on The R Word.  I was blown away when I heard her speech, and I am still in awe of this young lady who is now only seventeen. Even though I am biased, I am certain her words are important for your kids and their peers to hear.  Please feel free to share with your PTA's, teachers, neighbors or anyone you feel could benefit from truly understanding why the R Word hurts.  Why you should choose any word other than the R Word.  You may also view her TedTalk Project HERE.  

 Maddie and Devin Mitchell, 2018

Maddie and Devin Mitchell, 2018

I’m here to talk to you about the r-word. And for those of you who don’t know what word I am referring to, I’m talking about the word “retard”.

Nobody seems to realize the severity and the pain that those six letters hold… The word is the old language we used to use to label people with intellectual disabilities.

It’s a word I hear in the hallways daily… A word I hear the same kids say, after I repeatedly tell them about the hurt caused by and meaning behind the word. A word I hear kids I’ve never met before say, middle and high schoolers. I see some kids flinch when they hear it being said, but they don’t say anything about it and just let it go.

When I hear the word, I do try and say something. But it feels like when I try and explain why they shouldn’t say it, people just don’t seem to take me seriously… they say it, I explain why they shouldn’t say it, they apologize, but then… they just say it again the next day. This word has become so common in the world today that people don’t realize what they’re saying. It’s no longer seen as a derogatory term, it’s… just seen as a word. A word that’s in the songs we listen to, a word said by the adults we look up to, a word that’s in the books we study from at school. It’s a part of today's culture.

About two years ago I got into an argument with a classmate about the use of the r-word. It was around the time Finding Dory came out, and I was so excited because I had just seen the movie the night before and absolutely loved it. A few people were sitting together in the student center, talking about the movie and whether it was worth seeing or not, and then we started talking about our favorite scenes… eventually we started talking about the scenes with the seals in them. One seal in particular. I remember saying something like, “Aw, he’s so cute,” and then one of my friends said, “He’s so retarded”... I was shocked. I had no idea what to say or how to respond. So I asked, “Why… Why would you use that word of all words?” And he responded with, “Well because he is; because he’s dumb. C’mon, you can’t argue with me on that. Just look at him! He even LOOKS like a retard.” I swear I stopped breathing. The room went DEAD silent. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t feel, I couldn’t speak. ALL I could see was red. All I wanted to do was HIT him or PUSH him to show him how angry I was, how angry hearing that word made me… But I just looked at him for a few seconds, puzzled as to why he would argue that it was reasonable for him to say, and then said, “So my little sister… she’s dumb too? Because, you know, people call her that word.” I don’t remember everything said, but I do remember the anger and shock I was feeling, I remember the look of discomfort on his face when I mentioned my sister, I remember the tears running down my face because I was SO upset that someone felt that it was valid to argue with me that he could say it as long as he didn’t say it to my sister’s face, I remember that he never stopped arguing with me either. He only stopped talking when other people got involved and told him enough was enough.

I feel as though it’s so obvious as to why I get offended. I mean, it’s a rude word. It’s a word used to put someone down, and is a word used to describe my younger sister, Devin.

Devin has Down syndrome, and a medical term doctors used to refer to her as was “mentally retarded”. It WAS a medical term, but it has turned into something much more than that. It was derogatory then, and is still derogatory now. It’s never been okay to say, whether said by a professional doctor, a high school student, or anybody. I hear it in the hallway, I see it on social media, it’s everywhere. And when you say “You’re retarded”, I hear “You’re like Maddie’s sister”.

And I realize I sound preachy and like I’m trying you tell you what you can and can’t do, and I just don’t have that power. I don’t have the right to tell you what you can and can’t do, can and can’t say… You’re allowed to say it. You’re allowed to be degrading and hurtful… And while I don’t have the right to tell you you’re NOT allowed to say the r-word, I DO have the right to encourage you to change your mind and to persuade you to not. I’m allowed to make you recognize that you have the option to not use that word. Because you do. You have the power. You have the power to not only remove it from your vocabulary, but also the power to encourage others to remove it from their vocabulary as well.

There is no positive spin to using the r-word. There is never a time or place where it is acceptable of calling someone the r-word, calling anyone and anything the r-word. It‘s outdated and offensive. Why does it need to even be in our vocabulary? Who is it benefitting? Who NEEDS to be able to say it? The r-word is exclusive. It ignores individuality. It equates people with intellectual disabilities with being dumb or stupid. It spreads hurt. It fosters loneliness. It is incorrect. It is offensive. Make respect the new r-word. Get rid of the old r-word. Stop saying it yourself, speak up when you hear someone else say it, whether it be a friend or someone who’s a complete stranger. Be a part of the movement for advocacy.  

-Maddie Mitchell