Saturday, February 27, 2010

In Special Olympics event, 400 children rally against R-word

From The Southtown Star in Illinois. In the picture, T.J. Moore holds a sign with a pledge regarding the use of the word retard, during an assembly called "Spread the word to end the word retard", at Mt. Greenwood School in Chicago.

Addressing an auditorium of some 400 children at Mount Greenwood School on Feb. 26, Jennifer Marcello dropped the "R" word - retarded.

Not surprisingly in a room packed with first- through fourth-graders, an outbreak of giggling erupted.

Two rows of students who compete in the Special Olympics Young Athletes program did not laugh, and neither did the older children from the special needs class.

"It's not a funny word. It's what people say when they want to make fun of other people," said Marcello, who manages Illinois' young athletes program for children ages 2 to 7.

Special Olympics representatives and athletes are touring schools on behalf of a national campaign to stomp out use of the "R" word. A group of seventh-graders also took the Mount Greenwood stage Feb. 26, performing a series of one-minute skits highlighting why the word is hurtful.

Controversy surrounding use of the word made national headlines last month when it was reported that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel referred to a group of liberal activists as "(.......) retarded." Emanuel quickly apologized and agreed to sign a pledge to not use the word.

So far, more than 72,000 people have signed the pledge at The goal is to reach 100,000.

Thomas Strack, 38, of Palos Heights, said he frequently was taunted by the word as a junior high student. Friday was the first time that Strack, who is on the Special Olympics Illinois Board of Directors, publicly spoke out against use of the word.

"It's time for a change," said Strack, who has Down syndrome. "Spread the word to end the word. It would mean so much to so many people."

After discovering that their son Jack had Down syndrome, Special Olympics coach Brook Klawitter said she and her husband worried that he would be teased and wouldn't have friends, she told the schoolchildren. Now an outgoing 4-year-old, Jack has lots of friends, loves to play ball and can spell his own name, she said.

"Why is it so important to spread the word to end the word? It's because the 'R' word is hurtful to him. And it goes back to all (our) fears," Klawitter said.

The national campaign began in earnest last winter at the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Idaho, when a group of athletes asked the organization to remove the word "mentally retarded" from its literature.

Since then, legislators across the country have sponsored measures to purge the word from the law books. A Maryland congresswoman has sponsored a measure in the U.S. House, and similar efforts are under way at statehouses in West Virginia, Washington state and Idaho, according to The Associated Press.

Illinois still uses the terminology, said Tom Green, spokesman for the state human services department.

The American Psychiatric Association has also proposed changing the diagnostic term "mental retardation" to "intellectual disability."