One word, three syllables, eight letters, so much baggage.
Once meant as a way to classify people who needed help, the R-word became something else entirely, something mean -- like a schoolyard bully picking on outcasts and not letting them up. Then it became a code word to make fun of others while making ourselves feel superior. Why, the favorite athlete of millions used it not just once, but twice, to put down reporters he felt were asking dumb questions.
"Open up your vocabulary, people," says Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden. "The R-word is hurtful, hateful and ignorant. Like the N-word, it should not be part of our language."
Haden is the first NFL player to be named a Special Olympics Global Ambassador, and the 26-year-old worked Radio Row at the Super Bowl this year to help the movement called Spread The Word To End The Word. Created in February 2009 in conjunction with the World Winter Games, Spread The Word can now count more than 500,000 online pledges to end the use of the slur and its variants. Millions more have signed the pledge on banners and petitions around the world.
Haden's involvement in the Special Olympics began because of his relationship with his brother Jacob, who is five years younger and has a cognitive disorder that limits his language and speech. "He's just a really cool kid, a blessing to me and my family," says Haden. "I play for him, and I would do anything for him."
That's the same kind of brotherly love that launched the movement. Back in 2007, Soeren Palumbo, a senior at Fremd High School in Palatine, Illinois, gave a speech to the student body in which he wove a powerful thread connecting language that was clearly offensive because of racial and gender stereotypes, to language that goes unchallenged even though it targets the intellectually disabled, to a scene at his own breakfast table, when he talks with his sister Olivia before she goes off to school. "I watch the bus disappear around the turn, and I can't help but remember the jokes. ... No matter what she does, no matter how much she loves those around her, she will always be the butt of some immature kid's joke."
Palumbo closed with this: "I have learned infinitely more from [Olivia's] simple words and love than I have from any classroom of 'higher education.' I only hope that, one day, each of you will open your hearts enough to experience true unconditional love. ... I hope that, someday, someone will love you as much as Olivia loves me. I hope that, someday, you will love somebody as much as I love her. I love you, Olivia."
The video of his speech got a lot of attention, and after Palumbo went to Notre Dame, he joined forces with Timbo Shriver, the son of Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver and grandson of founder Eunice Shriver, to start a grassroots campaign to educate people about the issue. "Someday, I hope we put ourselves out of business," says Palumbo. "But in the meantime, we still need to get millions of people to understand the pain their words can cause, to build a bridge between those with and without intellectual disabilities."
Says Timbo Shriver, "Nothing is more misleading than the expression, 'Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.' Bruises heal. Words can stay hurtful forever."
How hurtful? Loretta Claiborne, the Special Olympics legend and friend of Eunice Shriver, is 62 now, but she still recalls an incident from her own childhood: "I remember trying to start an art class, join the art class in school. Kid looked at me and says, 'What you doing here? We don't want retards in our class. Get outta here!'"
Part of the power of Spread The Word lies in its youthful leadership -- they are addressing their own peers, who try to act cool but end up acting cruel. Eastman Chandler, a senior at Hollis Brookline High School in New Hampshire, brought the campaign to his school last year because of his own involvement in the Special Olympics' Unified Sports program. "I want people to realize how hurtful and degrading the R-word is," he says. "The real R-word is 'respect.'"
The movement has also been helped along by social media, which offers not only immediacy and reach, but also plenty of opportunities to challenge prominent people who cavalierly use the word, or its offshoots. After political pundit Ann Coulter tweeted, "I highly approve of [Mitt] Romney's decision to be kind and gentle to the retard," referring to Barack Obama during a 2012 presidential debate, Special Olympics athlete John Franklin Stephens wrote a powerful letter in response: "Ms. Coulter, you, and society, need to learn that being compared to people like me should be considered a badge of honor. No one overcomes more than we do and still loves life so much."
Then there's the matter of LeBron James' unfortunate choice of language. Twice, in 2011 and 2014, he deployed the word to dismiss questions he thought were stupid. But it's a measure of progress that the reactions were much stronger the second time. Back in 2011, an article about his slip on CBSSports.com was greeted with such comments as, "The heck with political correctness," "Get over it" and "This article and this issue is 'retarded.'" When he threw the word out there again in January 2014, though, the reaction was so vociferous that he felt the need to issue this apology: "I used the word 'retarded' before. Obviously, it had nothing to do with kids that are underprivileged. There's no knock on them. It's a word that's been around for a long time where I grew [up]. It's a bad habit, so I try to break it. If I use it again, I'm going to try to do my best not to. I mean no disrespect."
It is an insidious word, written into our personal dictionaries with a poison pen, sometimes without our realizing it. Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has long been actively involved in Special Olympics, but even he used it before Super Bowl XLVII when he was asked about holding the event in a cold weather city. He immediately issued an apology, and then at a Special Olympics event a few months later, Flacco and two teammates signed the pledge to not use the word.
Though Haden and James both play in Cleveland, Haden says he hasn't talked to James about his use of the word. "I think he's learned that lesson," says Haden. "Besides, there are other lessons to learn. I would encourage him, or anyone, to go to a Special Olympics event. That's where you'll see the pure joy of competition, a joy we should all remember, no matter how big we get."
At a recent event in New Haven, Connecticut, for that state's Summer Games, several Special Olympics athletes were talking about the upcoming World Games when the question came up, "Who's your favorite athlete?"
Michael Phelps was offered up, and Ryan Lochte, and Rory McIlroy. But when it came time for Chuck Yenkner, a track and field athlete from Glastonbury who works for Bob's Discount Furniture, to answer the question, he rattled off the names of people he has competed against over the years -- and he has been a Special Olympics athlete for 24 years. "Those are my favorite athletes," he says. "Those are the people who helped push me to get better. Those are my friends."
Chuck Yenkner should be your favorite athlete.