My Campaign to Ban the R-word

By Katie Pullano

My name is Katie Pullano! I’m a 15 year old from Bedford, Texas. I don’t have an intellectual disability. I don’t have a family member with an intellectual disability. But I do have a best friend with Down syndrome. Several years ago, I met Kalli and Colby, at a Special Olympics swimming event while volunteering as a unified athlete with my older brother. Little did I know those two athletes would change my life forever.

A year went by and my hangout sessions with Colby and Kalli became more frequent. As I entered into the 7th grade at my local junior high, I had already learned one very important lesson; the word “retarded” was not only hurtful but also demeaning and derogatory. My feelings were very hurt in the first couple of months at my new school when I heard kids saying things such as “Bro, quit acting so retarded” and “You look retarded.”

My efforts to correct these students were, at first, minimal. I understood that the word was harmful, but I never offered a solution. Finally, I snapped when my math teacher used the r-word. After a couple of days, embarrassment in front of my class, and an argument that the connotation of the word was harmful, my teacher finally apologized.

Word went around that I was the “r-word” police. Soon enough my best friends, their friends and so on, joined my squad. I got used to being criticized. I got used to being argued with. I got used to disagreements and lectures and the attitude that was often times given to me. But I was also given support that I was, and still am, grateful for.

From this point, things just got bigger and better.

Through Special Olympics I met new people who have supported me and given me more reason to stand up for what I believe in. I can honestly say that the word “retarded” does not at all describe the loving people I’ve met who have intellectual disabilities. On March 7th of this year, as a 9th grader, I conducted a Ban the R-word pledge day at the same junior high.

We received about 250 signatures between the students and the teachers who vowed to think before they spoke. In addition, I’ve met other kids my age who help with Ban the R-word and, hopefully, by the end of the summer I will have my own non-profit to benefit the amazing campaign. It’s crazy to that this all started on a pool deck with two very incredible people!

Of course there are things I wish I had done better in my campaign.

My advice, if you’d ever want to start your own chapter of the campaign, would be:

  • Get organized! First, contact your administration at your school. Then find the teachers, parents, volunteers, etc. that you know would be interested in helping.
  • Get informed! Contact Special Olympics. Read up on what you are going to support. Plus, not only do they offer posters, but they also offer an online pledge, t-shirts, advice and ideas! Get on their website
  • Get excited! Get some friends involved. It’s easier to stand up for what you believe when other people are standing with you. Hang up some posters, make announcements, post things on Facebook, Twitter, etc. to let people know what’s coming up!
  • Stay firm! Remember to always have compassion for your cause. Never pass up an opportunity to spread the word to end the word! You are standing up for many.

10 Responses

  1. Good work Katie. Several years ago, a fellow choir member, who was in high school at the time. Used the r word during one practice session. I guess my face turned pretty red. All the choir members looked at me and sort of backed up a little. After practice I went to the young women and told her the same thing you’ve said – how hurtful. Why are people so insensitive? She went back to school and imparted it to her friends who vowed not to use it and voice to others the same information – it’s hurtful and worse yet hateful. By graduation, they too had a contract with their classmates to avoid using it.
    One has to wonder why it too until 2011 for the federal government to ban it’s use. And Florida legislation did too. Hope others take the hint!

  2. Katie – I wish my daughters knew you – they would like you! Excellent blog!

  3. It has always fascinated me how people from a country so obsessed with free speech are often also fond of self-censorship and banning offensive things. I just hope that these things are advocated by different people, since it would be rather hypocritical otherwise.

    Anyway, it’s fine to be offended by a word and I understand your reasons, but

    1) Replacing the word with something less “hurtful” only works for a while until the new word becomes a synonym, and/or is used to ridicule the politically correct.
    2) Your fragile feelings are not a valid reason for banning things. Try to make people aware of the impact their words can have, sure – but don’t legally force others to change their vocabulary. That won’t change any underlying problems — and it’s hardly a display of freedom.
    3) Context matters. Tolerance doesn’t mean that you have to tiptoe around certain terms, trying not to offend “them”. That only emphasizes our differences and is a validation of their insulting value. In a certain sense, you would be ‘donating’ the words to those with *genuine* xenophobic sentiments.
    4) And, probably most importantly, it is just a word. I’m not saying that words can’t hurt. I’m just saying it is dangerous to try to protect people from them.

    • Perhaps the reason we are so obsessed with free speech is that we understand the power of it.

      The R-Word campaign is, more than anything, an educational initiative. I assume that many people who throw the word “retard” around simply have no idea of what people with disabilities have faced. One of my favorite writers (who also happens to have a disability) is Dave Hingsburger. About a year and a half ago, he provided a quick history lesson:

      “The people who ‘ARE’ what the ‘R’ word refers to have a long history. They have been torn from families and cast into institutions; beaten, hosed down, over medicated, under nourished, sterilized, brutalized, victimized… held captive, been enslaved, and have had their very being given over to the state. This is the people who have walked the land of the long corridor, who have waited at the frontier of our own bias to finally be here, now. They have survived. They have come home. They have continued, silently and without fanfare, to take hold of freedom and live with dignity.”

      Not one single citizen is being legally forced to change their vocabulary. As always, people are free to be as hurtful, harmful, ignorant and mean-spirited as they choose. But I do hope they’re smart enough to decide otherwise.

      Great post, Katie.

    • Thank you, David Morstad, for your spot-on response to this post. I would ask Anonymous if he/she is comfortable throwing around the “n” word. For families like mine, the “r” word is equally offensive.

      The Spread the Word campaign is about compassion and promoting human dignity, not the “fragile feelings” of some hypersensitive dolts. If you can’t recognize the hurtfulness of language that destroy’s my daughter’s humanity than you have a disability of the soul (and I feel sorry for you)

      Thank you, Katie, for this beautiful post. I salute your efforts and applaud your courage.

  4. Katie,
    My little brother might have special needs and one of my best friends does. The kids at my school say the r word all the time and when I ask them to stop all they do is ask why and keep saying it. The problem is I know it’s bad but I don’t really have a reason. Could you help me answer their question please?

  5. Katy,
    That’s a great question! The way I started explaining it was saying something like , “hey, that word isn’t really appropriate. As someone who loves someone else with an intellectual disability, that word hurts my feelings. I know you might not be educated on it, but the R-word is extremely offensive to people with special needs.” simply ask them not to say it. Once they know you were hurt by it, they should stop using it!

  6. Katie–
    As a teacher of students with intellectual disabilities, I am so proud of you for standing up for your friends! I think your generation can truly make a difference in how the world treats people with intellectual disabilities! Keep on teaching your peers on why the “r” word is so hurtful and know that all of us that love people with intellectual disabilities are fighting with you!

  7. Katie,
    This was a great blog! You are such a fantastic person. I wish there were more people like you in this world. Thanks to you and the Stop The R campaign, I hope to bring it to my community for next year. As a person who also tries to stop the use of that “word”, I’m hoping to take the message to the next step as you did. Would it be possible to ask you a few questions about the campaign and the process you took to get into it, over Facebook or email?
    Thanks so much, and keep up the good fight! :)
    – Mark Potvin (Waterloo network)

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