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Disability rights activists at UNC speak out against hurtful language

Sophomore forward on the men's basketball team J.P. Tokoto signed the Spread the Word to End the Word pledge in the Pit on Monday.Courtesy of Anisha Parker.

Sophomore forward on the men's basketball team J.P. Tokoto signed the Spread the Word to End the Word pledge in the Pit on Monday.

Courtesy of Anisha Parker.

“There goes the retard rocket!” a rowdy group of middle school students shouted in reference to the bus in front of theirs.

Sierra was ecstatically waiting to see her sister, an intellectually disabled middle-schooler who was riding the “retard rocket.”

But to hear her peers refer to her own sister’s disability in such a derogatory way marred Sierra’s rush of excitement. Though she had been looking forward to telling her sister about an unexpected A on her math test, that excitement dissipated with the roaring laughter of her peers.

Sierra’s experience sheds light on how powerful language can be and how important it is to start a conversation on disability rights on campus, said junior Anna Ollinger in recounting her best friend’s story.

Ollinger, president of Best Buddies , a nonprofit organization that provides companions for students with disabilities, is doing just that in helping launch the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign this week at UNC. It is part of a nationwide effort to end verbal usage of “retarded,” the r-word.

“People are just becoming more conscientiousness of our language and how that affects our perspectives,” Ollinger said. “For a long time, people have been using the r-word in a derogatory manner, and the campaign was started to raise awareness on that.”

Throughout the week Best Buddies members, with the help of other on-campus organizations, will stand in the Pit, handing out free T-shirts, buttons and stickers.

They plan to do a Facebook “I Pledge” campaign in which students can take pictures with messages explaining why they’re choosing to stop saying the word. Next week R.J. Mitte , an actor in the TV series Breaking Bad who has cerebral palsy , will speak on campus about disability rights.

Jack Witty, co-chairman of Best Buddies, said organizers hope to expand the campaign since its debut at UNC last year.

“We’re trying to go a little bit bigger, a little bit better,” he said. “Today was our first day of being in the Pit asking for signatures. People really understand the issue more than last year, and the T-shirts have just gone like wildfire.”

Megan O’Donnell, vice president of communications for Special Olympics North Carolina, said that the word has become a slang term synonymous with “silly” and “dumb,” but that developmentally disabled people are anything but dumb.

“Even if they are just saying, ‘Oh, you’re acting silly, or you’re acting stupid, it’s still hurtful,” she said. “All you have to do is talk to one of our Special Olympics athletes. They have all been bullied at one point.”

Viviana Bonilla-Lopez, co-founder and co-chairwoman of Rethink: Psychiatric Illness, said her group is supporting Best Buddies by participating in the Facebook “I Pledge” campaign and promotion activities in the Pit.

Bonilla-Lopez said she doesn’t think people intend to belittle intellectually disabled people, but using the word has that consequence.

“Most people just don’t realize that despite their good intentions, their use of certain words and expressions have a harmful impact.”

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