By Barb Arland-Fye
DAVENPORT – Emilee Steinbach knows how hurtful the word “retarded” can be for families like hers who have a loved one with a disability. That’s why Steinbach, a sophomore at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, helped organize a pledge drive March 7 to eliminate the word “retarded” from everyone’s vocabulary.
The first-time effort of Steinbach and her co-organizers was part of a national “Spread the Word to End the Word” day of awareness. Youths with and without intellectual disabilities created the campaign in February 2009 “to promote the positive contributions that people with intellectual disabilities make to communities around the world,” said Mark Reed, Special Olympics Iowa president and CEO. It is part of an ongoing effort with Special Olympics and Best Buddies International “to engage schools, organizations and communities by raising the consciousness of society about the dehumanizing and hurtful effects of the word ‘retard(ed)’ and encouraging everyone to stop using the R-word,” said Reed.
“I have a younger brother with a disability. I have known how the R-word can be most hurtful to families and to the individuals with a disability,” said Steinbach, an early childhood education major from Newton. “I’m hoping to make as many people as possible aware of how that word is so hurtful.” St. Ambrose junior Kate Daniel, a pledge drive co-organizer, admits, “I’ve been guilty of using the R- word before.” But Daniel, who also is an early childhood education major, realized the offensiveness of the word while working with children with disabilities, she said.
Supporting the students’ efforts were the Residence Life staff, the Office for Students with Disabilities and Iowans with Disabilities in Action (ID Action). Organizers were amazed at the support for their effort. “People heard about it,” co-organizer and St. Ambrose junior Pat Schmadeke said. “And they wanted to be a part of it,” added Daniel.
‘I was excited to learn that students were pulling together to do something like this,” said St. Ambrose psychology professor Andy Kaiser, who also chairs the Iowa Developmental Disabilities Council. Laws can change words, he noted, but seeing students promise not to use a word that insults so many is especially encouraging. “We’re trying to change the system. This is an example of how that is changing, from the ground up,” he added.
Students in his psychology classes learn that “mental retardation” applies to a diagnostic term, which the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) will change to intellectual disability in its new edition. Mental retardation is “a term that has been hijacked and abused” by society, Kaiser said.
Approximately 250 individuals signed their names to a pledge board in the campus cafeteria, agreeing to choose an alternative to the R-word when referring to someone with an intellectual disability.
Steinbach, Daniel and Schmadeke plan to take the pledge board to Des Moines later this month to thank Iowa legislators for working on legislation that removes the R-word from Iowa law. On March 6, the Iowa Legislature approved a bill (2247) that replaces the words “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability” in state laws.
A federal law already on the books, Rosa’s Law, removed the terms “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” from federal health, education and labor policy and replaced them with “individual with intellectual disability” and “intellectual disabilities,” which is viewed as people-first language, according to the www.r-word.org website.
Steinbach said the pledge board will be framed and hung in a prominent place on campus after its showing in Des Moines. “It serves as a reminder to people to use appropriate language.”