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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Brandeis community pledges to avoid the r-word

Published: March 7, 2014
Section: News, Top Stories

“Nothing about the r-word has anything to do with people who have developmental disabilities,” said Kristina S., an individual from Watch City Self Advocates. Kristina spoke passionately about not using the r-word (retarded) during Thursday night’s event, “Spread the Word to End the Word.”

Brandeis Buddies and SPECTRUM, two Waltham Group programs that work with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, co-hosted the event. After an active week of tabling and persuading Brandeis students to pledge not to use the r-word, a closing ceremony took place in Pearlman on Thursday. The event featured a speech from State Representative Tom Sannicandro, words from self-advocates, and short film clips.

“We are so much more than that word. We are artists and dancers and singers and sisters and brothers and fathers and friends … we are just as smart and capable as everybody else,” said Kristina.

While “Spread the Word to End the Word” is a national campaign, Leah Igdalsky ’14 had the idea to bring the event to campus. “The idea for this event came from my internship this past summer with Special Olympics International in Washington, D.C. I heard that many other schools across the country were holding [these] events, encouraging people to treat others with respect and dignity,” said Igdalsky. “I felt that as a school committed to social justice, this was something that we needed to do!”

Throughout the week, Igdalsky and others banded together to get signatures for their banners. Over two banners were filled with signatures, agreeing to never use the r-word. “The volunteers who tabled reported that people were generally receptive, and many people said that they either had been involved with something like this in high school or that they had never heard about it before and wanted to learn more,” said Igdalsky.

Overall, Igdalsky’s goal for this small movement on campus was simple: “I hope that this event will make the Brandeis community aware that people with disabilities are not defined by their disabilities,” she said. “They deserve the same respect as anyone else, and that starts by using language that is not offensive or isolating.”

Sannicandro, who is both the State Representative for Framingham and Ashland and a Ph.D. candidate at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, spoke primarily about history in terms of people with disabilities. Starting with the eugenics movement, he moved forward, discussing how people with disabilities won the right to an public school education and more. He argued that Massachusetts actually led the nation in this fight, as this state was the first in 1972 to say that people with disabilities have the right to education. The federal law followed.

“You’re at a part in history where times are changing very rapidly, but you need to understand what happened before,” said Sannicandro. This issue is close to his heart, as his son has Down syndrome.

Sannicandro discussed the power of an education for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Moving forward, he hopes it will become possible for everyone to also achieve a college education. Currently, Massachusetts has a program where people with disabilities can attend public college, state universities like UMass, and community colleges.

“In college you learn a lot academically and socially … we’re seeing these people transform,” Sannicandro said. “They’re doing phenomenal stuff.”

In terms of using the r-word, Sannicandro reacted strongly. “I find the word so offensive myself that it does something physically to me when I hear it,” he said.

After Sannicandro’s speech, event coordinators showed clips of people with disabilities discussing various topics, such as “what would you change about yourself” or “what do you like about yourself.” The event closed with the individuals speaking from Watch City Self Advocates, a group that is part of Greater Waltham Arc.

“Nobody should use the r-word,” said Joe O. enthusiastically. “It’s not right.”