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Disable the Label

Josh Vandyk has been called names by his peers. “Monster” is one that particularly hurt, he said. There have been others. And he’s heard the “r-word”: retarded.

The word that was once widely accepted as a synonym for someone with a developmental or intellectual disability endures for most of those who use it as an insult, a put-down, a slur. “It makes me feel uncomfortable,” saidJosh, a senior who has autism spectrum disorder and a speech impediment that can sometimes make his words challenging to understand.

And though Josh can’t explain exactly why the r-word is unsettling, most would say he shouldn’t have to. “I think it’s like a bad word,” he said.

Josh Vandyk, Forest Hills Eastern High senior

Disable the Label

Some Forest Hills Public Schools students want to keep the r-word out of their conversations. General and special education members of Eastern High and Middle School’s Project UNIFY group visited their lunchrooms recently as part of a “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign.

Forest Hills is one of a handful of Kent ISD districts that participate in Project UNIFY and have or will take part in the national Spread the Word campaign. Project UNIFY is a program of Special Olympics aimed at promoting inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities in school activities. By teaming students with and without disabilities in sports, leadership roles and school-wide activities, it seeks to foster acceptance, respect and dignity. It operates in more than 2,000 schools with as many as 500,000 students.

There was no need for the Forest Hills group to actively solicit their peers to sign the pledge forms during lunch. Students crowded around tables set up with posters they were invited to sign — their autograph serving as their promise to scrub the r-word from their vocabularies.

“It’s definitely not right to just label someone,” said Brandon Lee.

“I have two cousins with Down syndrome,” said Olivia Laux.

“It’s just not right,” said Camila Meraz.

Senior Selby Kohler said she doesn’t hear the r-word at school, but she does hear it at work, particularly among those older than she is.

“Do I hear it often? No. But sometimes I hear it,” said teacher Christopher Thomas. “People just don’t think. Sometimes you just say things and don’t think about how your words can hurt.”

Middle-schoolers Sydney Paalman, left, and Brittany Rosely, right, with ASD teacher Erin Gauthier

End in sight?

Decades ago, school children were well aware of the context in which calling someone retarded or a “retard,” meant as an insult, related to those with an intellectual disability. The Arc, the largest national community-based organization advocating for and serving those with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families, got its start in 1953 as the National Association for Retarded Children. The r-word was removed from its name in 1992.

The term “mental retardation” was developed for clinical purposes more than 100 years ago, and originally only had a neutral connotation for describing a specific type of disability. However, the wider use of the term and its permutations spawned negative stereotypes about people with intellectual disabilities, according to Arc’s history.

In 2010, President Obama signed into law a bill that required the terms “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” be stricken from federal records. Those terms were replaced with “intellectual disability” and “individual with an intellectual disability.” The most recent version ofthe Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders also adopted the term intellectual disability, replacing mental retardation. This change was due in part to the changes in the law.

Stand Up, Just Stop

Josh, the Forest Hills Eastern senior, says that thanks to Project Unify, he has buddies in every class. “I’m making lots of friends,” he said. And he says he feels like he can count on them to do the right thing when they hear someone call someone else the r-word. “Stand up for them,” Josh urged.

And for those who think the word is harmless? Take it from Josh: “They need to just stop.”


Spread the Word to End the Word Campaign

How to Respond to Those Who Use the R-Word

Opinion: Why retarded deserves to be retired

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio


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