Friday, April 3, 2009

Side Notes! Special Olympics takes on the word 'Retard' - Special Olympics Launches Campaign to Ban 'Retard' - Local News | News Articles | National News | US News

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This story came out on Wednesday and it has prompted some good discussions at the schools among special education teachers. Of course, we love the Special Olympics program and many of our students enjoy great times and success at the annual events. Most of us feel, however, that the Special Olympics program may be misappropriating time, money and publicity for this campaign.

I find the campaign against the word problematic in several ways. I think SO is focusing on the negative instead of the positive. I would rather see promotions of accomplishments rather than the focus on a word that describes limitations or disabilities. I am not a big fan of the "word police" in general. Words have meanings and should be used correctly in the appropriate situations. It also seems like some of the people involved in the SO campaign want the word completely banned from use. Obviously, there are appropriate uses for the word, "retard," since it literally means to slow down or delay the progress. It is often used in science and mechanics to describe processes or machinery. (See In music we use the word,
ritardando, and often just say, ritard.

I think a better way to approach the situation is to change hearts and minds. The audience SO is trying to reach is mostly kids or crude, perhaps uneducated people. This is not a group likely to be swayed by people telling them what words they can use! If we can change their outlook on people with disabilities and demonstrate their accomplishments and amazing creativity and spirit, then people will be unlikely to use a disparaging word. It is unfortunate that even our current president may need a change of heart. His remark about bowling like he was at the Special Olympics was definitely a "foot in the mouth" moment, but I can't imagine me or one of the teachers I work with ever saying this on television or even to one another. We probably have a lot of hearts and minds to change since it was the American people who elected someone that said this!

I hope SO can keep the conversation at a high standard and respect the word. All of the school districts I work in still use "Mental Retardation" as an official category for labeling a disability. We always try and use "person first" terminology (i.e., a person
with mental retardation, someone who has autism, rather than he or she is autistic or mentally retarded) so that the label does not define the person, but I don't see the term going away any time soon.

What do you think? I think this deserves some discussion if only in the larger context of language and dialogue in America. I don't want the descriptive labels we use in working with people with disabilities to undergo the same controversy that has happened with phrases like "illegal alien" having to be changed to "undocumented worker." I may be making a mountain out of a mole hill, but I think Special Olympics could better allocate their resources than buy into they hype around "political correctness."

Please let me know if you fell I have missed seeing or understanding something. I am open to ideas on the subject.

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