AUBURN — A new sentence — and a new campaign — is being promoted at Fairview Elementary School this week: “Spread the word to end the word.”
The word students are signing pledges not to use is “retarded.”
Lisa Bird of Special Olympics Maine spoke to an assembly of students Monday, explaining the issue. She also showed the students pictures of her young friends.
“These are Matty and Katelyn. They have Down Syndrome,” Bird said. “It hurts me so much when I hear someone use the word 'retard.'”
For someone with an intellectual disability, going to school can be scary, Bird said. Some are shy and afraid, and they don't talk out of fear they'll be laughed at.
When they hear the word being used to mean "dumb," it makes them feel bad about themselves, she said.
“We might say, 'I look retarded,' or 'Stop acting like a retard!' or if you did bad on a test, 'I'm such a retard,'” Bird said.
She asked students if they've ever used the word like that. A few hands shot up.
She asked if they've heard others use the word like that. Almost all hands shot up.
Bird explained how improper use of the word evolved.
“A long time ago, when someone was diagnosed with an intellectual disability, it was called 'mental retardation,'” Bird said. Because those who are intellectually disabled learn a little slower, may look or act a little different, society started using the word to mean "dumb" or "stupid."
But that's taking someone's medical diagnosis and making them feel bad, Bird said.
“People can be really mean and hurtful and use words to make you feel bad," Bird said. "All of us know what that feels like.” Sometimes, she said, people can be mean “even when we don't mean to be. Nice people can say things that can make people feel bad.”
She asked students to consider promising not to use the “R” word for a day. If they succeed, don't use the word for another day. She challenged students take it a step further and not use the word for a whole week — then never again.
If they hear someone else say the word, tell them it's not nice and ask them not to use the word, Bird said. The goal is to wipe out the "R' word, and other words being used in harmful, hurtful ways.
Students nodded heads in agreement.
“One of my best friends has Down Syndrome,” said Caroline Audette, 9, a third grader. “It's not a nice word. We shouldn't say it.”
Jeremy Carter, 12, said using the word to mean "dumb" is incorrect. “The actual term 'retard' means 'delayed' or 'slowed,' not a disability,” he said.
Connor Fontaine, 13, coaches fellow students with special needs to play tennis and use snowshoes. Use of the word doesn't belong in society, he said. “No, not at all.”
School counselor Susan Davis said “End the word” activities will go on this week, including door decorating and raffles for shirts, tote bags and caps. Students on the school's civil rights team are wearing "End the word" shirts.
The message blends well with Fairview's new “Project Unity,” where Fairview students are volunteering to pair up with special needs students, Davis said. Together, students work on classroom assignments, athletics and recreation.