Friday, August 31, 2012

Get them While They’re Young

Do you understand the impact of cerebral palsy (CP)?  Unless you have an intimate involvement with someone who has it, such as a family member or serving those that do, one would not understand its nature or how it affects individuals.  Only after I started working for Wendell Foster’s Campus (WFC) did I fully understand CP, despite having a relative with intellectual (ID) and developmental disabilities (DD) and despite having volunteered with individuals who have ID and DD.  While I felt compassion, I never really understood it.

My work as Community Education Coordinator advocates and educates, and I love it; however, I had a lot to learn!  One responsibility of mine involves coordination of the Spread the Word to End the R Word campaign, an initiative by Special Olympics to educate the public, especially young people, about the insensitive and inappropriate use of the words retard and retarded.  WFC started this educational program in 2009 to conduct educational presentations in the classrooms about ID and DD and their causes.  We educate students on how these challenges present physically and why.  Because the “r” word was once a now outdated medical term to label those with intellectual disabilities, we also address the insensitive use of it in today’s language, explaining the often-inferred and incorrectly-used slang definition of “stupid” or “idiot” as disrespectful.  We also invite students in K-12 to participate in essay and poster contests as a compliment to or independent of the classroom presentations.

Most of the students I present to are 5th, 6th, 7th graders (I've yet to be invited into the high schools).  Surprisingly, many students have a loved one with one of these types of disabilities, and upon hearing the information from a factual perspective verses a misinformed and/or historically inaccurate assumption, the students intently listen, absorbing the info like sponges. Both teachers and I witness the shift in their mindsets as they come to appreciate the challenges faced by those living with CP and cognitive dysfunction.  The Spread the Word campaign initiates the first step to students correctly understanding those with ID and DD, thus paving the way to greater inclusivity and respect for those with differences. 

What students understand about people with ID and DD often reflects misconstrued and even inaccurate information they unfortunately received from other adults, older siblings and the media.  This misunderstanding rings obvious within their questions or their answers to questions I pose during the presentation.  The best example of misunderstanding appeared in one well-meaning essay encouraging the elimination of the use of the “r” word; the misguided student encouraged instead the use of a different word, like imbecile!

Our media, including movies, stand-up comedians, and celebrities use the “r” word to get a “laugh” which irresponsibly educates the masses of its acceptability of inaccuracy, and inadvertently ingrains a historical misconception that individuals with ID and DD are “stupid” or “idiots.”  Unfortunately, students also learn the “r” word from influencing adults.  A parent of a child with ID told me the story involving another child’s middle school teacher referenced the term “flame retardant” during a class lecture.  The teacher then paused to clarify with his students that this term was not to be confused with the word “retarded” which meant "stupid."  Look up the word in the dictionary and one will see that this teacher’s “clarification” is not what this word means!  Unfortunately, its use in everyday language perpetuates its incorrect meaning as “the norm” by both children and adults alike. 

Similar to the line in the theatrical musical Evita when the character Che sings, “Get them while they’re young, Evita, get them while they’re young,” the Spread the Word Campaign aims to educate children when they are young enough to learn the inappropriateness and insensitivity of the “r” word.  With this understanding, young people become more aware of its inaccurate and insensitive use so they may make a choice not to use it, as well as have greater compassion towards those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  I meet some amazing kids who easily understand the insensitive impact the “r” word has on people.

If only the adults were as easy to teach and willing to shift their awareness and understanding about those we serve at WFC.  Sometimes, as demonstrated above, and as my work with this program reveals, adults inadvertently miss the mark by a mile in educating our children about individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

In the Next Blog Entry: Educating the Grown Ups - Well-meaning adults unfamiliar with the plight of those we serve inadvertently provide incorrect information . . . . For example, one poster . . . states that “retard-retarded is a diaese [sic] (disease).”

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