By Carol Costello and Bob Ruff
What’s in a word? Groups who suffer discrimination see certain words as powerful cultural weapons used by those determined to keep them in their place.
Suffragettes at the turn of the century, civil rights demonstrators in the 1950s and 1960s, and gay rights activists at the turn of the century all understood that educating Americans about the hate and discrimination embedded in certain words was an important step toward claiming their rights under the Constitution.
The targets of the “B” word, the “N” word, and the “Q” word see them as barriers to equality. Now there is the “R” word. It stands for “retarded.”
Most recently, the president’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, was criticized for using the “R” word when describing liberal Democrats. The resulting firestorm of criticism led to a meeting last week at the White House between Emmanuel and Special Olympics. The Special Olympics’ goal is to bring “dignity, acceptance and a chance to reach one’s potential” through athletics to people with intellectual disabilities. It was founded by President Kennedy’s sister, the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
Her son, Anthony Shriver, is the founder of Best Buddies, a nonprofit group that strives to create opportunities for “people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”
Shriver was not at the White House meeting with Emanuel, but spoke to people who were there. He told us that the chief of staff was apologetic and “committed to becoming an advocate to end the ‘R’ word, and the use of the ‘R’ word. ... He [Emanuel] said he didn’t really understand how harmful what he said really is to the population.”
We caught up with Frank Stephens this week to discuss the “R” word. Stephens is a 27-year-old man with Down Syndrome. He was so upset by the depiction of intellectual disabilities in the film “Tropic Thunder” that he wrote a letter that was published in several newspapers and magazines around the world.
We asked Stephens about this latest controversy. “It’s very hurtful," he said, “to those that are trying to live in this community.” He doesn’t think people are necessarily mean when they use the “R” word, but “they just don’t ... take the time to get to know us better. When they do, people really like us.”
One conservative who doesn’t sound sympathetic is radio host Rush Limbaugh. Last week on the radio he said, “Our politically correct society is acting like some giant insult’s taken place by calling a bunch of people who are ‘retards,’ ‘retards.’”
Special Olympics is moving on several fronts to remove the “R” word. They support legislation to eliminate the term “mental retardation” from Federal laws. They’re also urging people to sign an online pledge not to use the “R” word.
Rahm Emanuel recently signed the pledge and he promised to “examine” Congressional legislation that would remove the “R-word” from Federal law. The president’s chief of staff may have his work cut out for him, as evidenced by a Justice Department Civil Rights Division document. Halfway down in the document we spotted the phrase, “mental retardation.”