In today’s era of unfiltered tweets, resolute opinions and far-too-busy lives, it’s rare for average people to stop and take a look at their language.

Pause for a second and really think about the words and phrases you use and hear — what they mean to you, and what they mean to others. Think about the impact they leave. About the unnecessary pain that is caused by derogatory terms and slurs.

That impact exists with words such as the r-word. It’s seen in the pained faces of children and adults alike whose existence has been used as an insult. It’s felt when someone rips apart another’s integrity and tears their self-esteem to pieces.

These pains are caused by ignorant language. This does not refer to the curse words we may use when we spill hot coffee as we rush to work and school, or the expletives we scream when we get cut off. Rather, it is the words with a deeper-rooted meaning. The words that hold power over another person because a part of their life has been turned into an insult.

Michelle Swenson, an adviser for Orono Unified, a club associated with Special Olympics Minnesota, recalls “growing up and unfortunately hearing my classmates use the r-word to belittle one another. Never knowing what to say or how to intervene (especially since two of my classmates and friends had Down syndrome), I remained silent.” Since then she not only has learned how to intervene but has been a part of a movement to spread the word of inclusion and respect in schools, workplaces and communities. “The r-word is just as demeaning as any other negative word used to describe a group of people,” she continues. Words that are used for purposes of humor or mockery or insult are devastating to an entire community whose pure existence is now simply considered funny, disparaging or insulting.

It is an ignorant use of language “when they don’t understand the meaning of the word,” as Orono Unified partner Julia Rosendhal puts it. Because someone’s existence is not funny. Or disparaging. Or insulting. But destructive ignorance is. Not only is the r-word deeply offensive toward people with intellectual disabilities and their friends, families and loved ones, but because “language [also] affects attitudes and attitudes affect actions,” explains the Special Olympics campaign Spread the Word to End the Word. When you use the r-word (or any other derogatory terms and offensive slurs), you make it OK for others to continue using that word. You make it OK to use someone’s existence as an insult. To people with intellectual disabilities, “the R-word hurts because it is exclusive. It’s offensive. It’s derogatory,” the Spread the Word campaign asserts.

So combat the devastation, ignorance and exclusivity and pledge stop using derogatory terms and slurs because, in the words of Orono Unified partner Thomas Lecy, the r-word “really has no place in anyone’s vocabulary.” Create an environment of inclusion, one where someone’s existence is no longer funny, disparaging or insulting, but rather celebrated, revered and included. Take notice of the changes that have made schools such as Orono High School a more inclusive, loving and fun place to be. See the smiles on students’ faces as they walk down the hallways saying “hi” to their new friends, giving high-fives, and hanging out together at lunch and after school. Recognize how the energy and culture of a community is changed for the better when you choose to celebrate, revere and include the existence and accomplishments of everyone.

Take a moment to evaluate the language you use and the pain it causes. And choose to “become an advocate for ending the word,” like Rosendhal. Choose to stop making it OK to be ignorant. Use the words in your parcel and make a difference. “Spread the word, to end the word,” to end the ignorance, to end the hurt.

 

Jessica Narum, of Orono, is a student.