High School Students’ Campaigns Take Aim at ‘The R Word’

Students from Olathe’s high schools hope to make life a little better for their fellow students who have special education needs. They were part of the nationwide Spread the Word to End the Word effort to eliminate the words “retarded” and “retard” from people’s vocabulary.

The local effort involved high school students signing a pledge to stop using “the R word” and making videos and banners showing the many positive ways to describe individuals without using demeaning words. Students who signed the pledge received a “Spread the Word to End the Word” wristband.

“I am so amazed at what each of the high schools accomplished in hosting this event,” Director of Special Services Lanie Fasulo said. “The main purpose of participating in this event was to build student awareness about how using the R word is hurtful and dehumanizing to individuals with intellectual disabilities.”

Initial planning for the district’s Spread the Word campaign began when Center-Based Resource Facilitator Debby Byrne and Olathe North High School Center-Based Resource teacher Laura Warren reached out to the other high schools for volunteers to meet last December. Those volunteers included special education staff, students with disabilities, and general education students. They shared ideas and planned events that would take place in their buildings. Each high school’s Interpersonal Skills class, a group of special education and general education students, organized the activities.

The district’s Spread the Word campaign was vital in many ways, according to those who helped organize it.

“This event gave students with disabilities leadership opportunities in the planning and implementation of this event,” Fasulo said.

“The students with special needs were involved with 100 percent of the process,” Warren said. “They were involved in the video and planning of the video, creating signs, dispersing wristbands to those who pledged and working at a table at lunch were kids and students could pledge to end the R-Word.”

Elaine Fletcher, mother of Olathe North student Shawn who is on the autism spectrum, said he was active in the Spread the Word to End the Word activities.

“My hope is always to open the door of acceptance, respect, integration and hopefully start a conversation about the special needs population as a whole,” she said. “The R word is used as a derogatory comment, a joke, a definite negative. Words do hurt. I’d like our community to go back to the golden rule and treat others as you would want them to treat you.”

Olathe South High School parent Debbie Horn’s son also took part in “the R word” planning.

“As a parent of a child who has Down syndrome and labeled in many settings as having mental retardation, it is very hurtful to hear kids or even my friends use the R word,” she said. “Matthew is proud to be part of the movement to end the use of the words retard or retarded. There is no good reason to use the words and every time you do, you hurt someone and diminish their feelings as a human being.”

Jawanda Mast’s daughter, Rachel, was one of the Olathe South students who helped with the initial planning meeting. The Mast family has been involved with the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign nationally for several years, and Rachel has helped her mom advocate in Washington, D.C. and make presentations across the nation. Despite having Down syndrome, Rachel takes general education classes, is a member of Student Council, and was freshman volleyball manager.

“One of the parts of my presentations is always on using people first and respectful language,” Mast said. “I was pleased when I learned the school district was launching a consolidated effort to try to have individualized events on school campuses.”

South’s video is somewhat similar to the national Spread the Word to End the Word campaign video, and it uses a broad range of words to describe the students involved. Interpersonal Skills teacher Catherine Wormus said most of the students made their own signs, and the general education students handled the videotaping, editing and producing.

“Our hope is to bring awareness that everyone is unique,” Wormus said. “Words do hurt and retarded is a word that needs to end.”

“We spent a couple of weeks prior to the campaign talking about the R word and why people use it, why we shouldn’t use it and how it makes people feel,” Olathe North High School teacher Laura Warren said. “The kids were engaged and participated in great, reflective conversation. As for the school community as a whole, I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of a bunch of teenagers. They indeed surprised me!”

“What I love most is that (this campaign) is a combined effort using students with diagnosed disabilities as well as those considered typical to plan a program to make people aware and get them to make a pledge to be part of the change,” Olathe South parent Jawanda Mast said.

Olathe East Center-Based Teacher Amy Hill and her students organized a pledge drive in early March and followed it up with a video in early April. “I got feedback from a couple of students who said the video made them cry!” she said. Their video script was a team effort and includes the following words: “Instead of using the R word, focus on a person’s abilities, positive attributes or strengths.

I don’t think people use the R word to be cruel, but it is important that we consider how the use of this word makes others feel. Language affects attitude and attitudes impact actions. Individuals with special needs are so much more than their labels, whether that is the R word or anything else. They have qualities that cannot be replaced, one of which is respect for others, so they deserve nothing but the same in return.”

“Olathe East Center-Based Teacher Amy Hill and her students organized a pledge drive in early March and followed it up with a video in early April. “I got feedback from a couple of students who said the video made them cry!” she said. Their video script was a team effort and includes the following words: “Instead of using the R word, focus on a person’s abilities, positive attributes or strengths.

I don’t think people use the R word to be cruel, but it is important that we consider how the use of this word makes others feel. Language affects attitude and attitudes impact actions. Individuals with special needs are so much more than their labels, whether that is the R word or anything else. They have qualities that cannot be replaced, one of which is respect for others, so they deserve nothing but the same in return.”