Doing away with the “R-Word”

B y Bill Toscano

Sara Collins isn’t afraid to admit it.

“I know I used the word ‘retarded’ when I was in high school,” said Collins, a special education teacher at Granville High School, who recalled using the word in Lee Vigeant’s art class. “I said it, and she said to me, ‘You know, some of my best friends are retarded, and that really bothers me.’ I never thought about it. I was an honors-class kid. There was no interaction.”

Last month, Collins and a number of other teachers showed a video that included actors from the television show “Glee” that was developed for the “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign. The movement, which is focused on removing the “R-Word” from casual conversation, is a program of Special Olympics and was started in 2009.

The 30-second video includes a number of racial and ethnic epithets, as well as the word “gay” and ends with Lauren Potter, who plays a special education student on “Glee,” and Jane Lynch, who plays the cheerleading coach, saying the word “retarded” is “not acceptable.”

Collins, a 2000 graduate of GHS who is in her fourth year teaching at  the school, said she had wanted to take part in the program in previous years, but it wasn’t until this year she was able to set it up in advance.

She said the reaction of her students was a pretty broad spectrum, noting that some did not even know all of the racial and ethnic slurs and that even another teacher had to ask about what a slur about Judaism meant.

“Then there were some kids who said, ‘Why are you even going to bother to show us this. It’s everyday language?’ I told that that 100 years ago, the “n-word” was an everyday word,” she said. “That led to a 20-minute discussion.”

Collins said she and other teachers at the school would like to take part in the Special Olympics’ Best Buddies program, which matches students with intellectual disabilities with mainstream students on a one-on-one basis. “There are no other local groups around, and we would like to see a school that has it before we start one ourselves,” she said.

Teachers had the option to show the video and to do whatever class discussion they chose.

Social studies teacher Christine Collins showed it to her ninth-grade honors class.

“I think overall as a group, they have a good value system, most kids in Granville do,” she said. “We talked about racial slurs and how this is like a racial or ethnic slur. For their generation, this is a slur.”

Three students who viewed the video in different classes said they agreed with the sentiment.

“My opinion is that people shouldn’t use that word,” said senior Jesse Owens, who saw it in Maria Grimke’s English class. “It’s something we learned in health. People with disabilities like that are just like you and me.”

Junior Paige Sady watched the video in a U.S. History class taught by Michael Rajter.

“I think it’s good to focus on this subject, because it’s a problem,” Sady said. “People are using a word they shouldn’t be using, because it’s derogatory toward people who are disabled. I think we all had the same reaction, that we should not use it.”

Senior Lori McKinstry watched the video in Collins’ class. “I was kind of upset how people use the word and no one understands. They could easily say it to the wrong person and they could take it wrong,” she said.

In the case of her class, there were some students who did not see the word as an issue. “A lot of people didn’t think use the word was OK, but there were some who thought it was fine,” she said.

“I was shocked and surprised. I figured they would see it in the same eye as everyone else and think it just wasn’t right.”

In its publicity materials, the End the Word program says, “Respectful and inclusive language is essential to the movement for the dignity and humanity of people with intellectual disabilities.  However, much of society does not recognize the hurtful, dehumanizing and exclusive effects of the words retard or retarded.”

Collins pointed out that until this year, New York schools were required to use the word “retarded” in classifying students. “Parents would come over from Vermont, where they do not use that word, and you could see their disappointment when they were told their kids were considered ‘retarded’ in New York,” she said. “This year, New York schools can use ‘intellectually disabled’ to describe those students.”

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