A small group of students and community members gathered in Norris Tuesday evening for “Stomp the R Word,” a discussion on the use of the word “retarded” and public attitude toward persons with intellectual disabilities.
Sponsored by Northwestern to Benefit Special Olympics, Best Buddies, Autism Speaks U and Ask Big Questions, the discussion began with a speech by Misericordia resident Mary Ellen Ryan, who discussed being saddened by the use of the word retarded in a “mean” context.
Ann Kim, Northwestern to Benefit Special Olympics education committee co-chair, sympathized with Ryan.
“It’s just become another synonym for the word dumb,” said Kim, a Weinberg senior. “People forget the implications.”
Shea Kernan, a program manager for Best Buddies Illinois, agreed with Kim and pressed those present to be active in changing the use of the “R Word.”
“I’m not afraid to tap [someone] on the shoulder and give them a thirty second speech,” Kernan said. “There are so many other words you can use.”
However, there was some debate about what exactly those words were. Although “disabled” and “special needs” were determined to be words that should be avoided, there was not a clear positive choice. Instead, Kernan and Kim agreed that language should be personal rather than clinical.
The discussion quickly moved away from the word “retarded” toward the attitude toward persons with disabilities on the Northwestern campus, which the group agreed had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality, with few students recognizing the presence of any persons with disabilities on campus.
Michael Miksis, a McCormick professor who came to the meeting with his son, felt that the lack of exposure resulted in Northwestern students immediately “pigeonholing” persons with disabilities and cited the benefits of inclusion programs at schools like Elmhurst College.
“You have to have more people with disabilities integrated into the system, and your biases will go away,” Miksis said.
Addressing the issue of bias, the discussion overwhelmingly favored introducing more disability education on campus, including adding another Essential NU and organizing smaller dorm events.
“Peer groups are a great place to get started,” Kim said.