When her son Nate was born with Down syndrome, Holly Simon
wanted to change how the world saw him and other children like
Frustrated that she couldn't change the world on her own despite
years of trying, she has now set her sights on something closer to
home. Teaming up with photographer Mark Randazzo, the pair
photographed children who do not fit, as Simon says, "in the box"
for a photo exhibition.
"I want to raise awareness that it is not OK to ever call a
child the R word," she says. "I may not ever be able to change the
world, but I can make a difference one person at a time."
The photo exhibition is part of Simon's long-standing Holly Days
fundraiser, held every year around Nate's birthday, for the National Association of Down
"We all fit," Simon says about the children with Down syndrome
and the other children in the exhibition who have unique
personalities. "I just want them to be looked at like you look at
your own child."
Across the pond, it's "mong" or "spazz." In Mexico, se dice
"mongo" or "mongolito." In Germany, it's "behindert" or
In Australia and New Zealand and much of Europe, like in the
United States, it's plain old "retard."
People all around the globe resort to their own translations of
the "R word" when they talk about workmates and family members who
just can't see the simple brilliance of their personal points of
view, or the urgency of doing things the way it's clear they need
to be done.
But for families dealing with the day-to-day challenges of
disability and cognitive delay, the derogatory slang word is just
another challenge to overcome.
Spread the Word to End the Word, an organization hatched by
Palatine's Soeren Palumbo, is waging worldwide war on the "R word."
Now more than 10 million strong, with followers from places as
far-flung as Antarctica, India and China, Spread the Word wants to
make the R word the new N word.
"It's a movement to strike the demeaning use of the word
'retard' from today's language all around the world and replace it
with a more affirmative R-respect," Palumbo says.
Palumbo came to understand the hurtful impact of the derogatory
label as a big brother to a sister with a cognitive disability. A
recent Notre Dame graduate who now works with Special Olympics,
Palumbo first started lecturing about the devastating repercussions
of dehumanizing terms for people with disabilities while a senior
at Fremd High School in Palatine.
He takes no prisoners when people plead ignorance.
"No one ever says, 'Oh, I thought that was a nice word,'" he
says. "It's a convenient shorthand for rationalizing and
dehumanizing a certain segment of people."
It's a "gateway issue," Palumbo says about using the word that
stereotypes people with disabilities. "It opens the door to
bullying, harassment and abuse."
The Hollis family of Elmwood may be the poster family for R word
slurs. Their two youngest daughters, 4 and 5, adopted from the
Ukraine, have Down syndrome.
One morning last April, Todd Hollis, a teacher and football
coach at the local high school in the small town about 30 miles
west of Peoria, backed the family car out of the garage to take the
kids to school. As the garage door came down in front of them, they
all gaped in horror at the defacement that had happened
"Reetodz, bitchez, 4-Eyes, Dead" was painted on the garage
Hollis grabbed the remote that sent the door careening back into
the garage ceiling. But he wasn't fast enough to keep the kids from
reading the frightening graffiti.
"They were very scared and had a lot of questions," Anne Hollis
says. "They asked what the word means and why people hate Down
They were questions without answers, she says.
"Even at 36, I can hardly comprehend it."
It wasn't until the family came home that afternoon that they
saw, "Get outta town, reetard," scrawled across the house siding
just outside the girls' bedroom window.
"It ripped my heart out to think someone had done that with my
sweet precious girls sleeping right on the other side of that
wall," Anne Hollis says.
Much like Palumbo, the Hollis family turned the hate into a tool
for consciousness raising. As the community rallied to support
them, the Not in Our Town Elmwood organization budded out with blue
ribbons on trees all through town. It evolved into a public
awareness campaign that raised $60,000 to bring messages of
tolerance and sensitivity to 22 area schools.
"In the end, the vandals' actions were counterproductive," Anne
Hollis says. "Their cowardly act strengthened an army of people who
love our girls and came forward to support them."
Palumbo remembers feeling the debasing eyes on his sister in the
supermarket. He heard the whispered slurs as they waited in the
"It's all a part of the stigma, the social barriers, the abuse
that people with disabilities face every day," he says. "For
someone in their family, it is an experience that is part of
His future as an activist with a worldwide following took flight
with a speech Palumbo first gave at a school assembly as a senior
at Fremd High School in February 2007. That was a year before
Special Olympics launched a website, r-word.org, to take on the
tactless use of the R word in everyday language.
"I can only tell you what it means to me and people like me when
we hear it," Timothy P. Shriver, chairman and CEO of Special
Olympics, said in October 2010 when President Barack Obama signed a
bill that purges the terms "mental retardation" and "mentally
retarded" from federal health, education and labor policy.
Known as "Rosa's Law," the law is the upshot of an anti-R word
crusade a Maryland family launched to combat harassment of their
daughter with Down syndrome. It replaces the R word with
"people-first language" like "individual with an intellectual
disability" and "intellectual disability."
In 2009, Palumbo teamed up with Shriver's son, Tim Shriver Jr.,
during an internship with Special Olympics while at Notre Dame. The
two launched a grassroots, youth-oriented incarnation of the anti-R
word campaign they dubbed Spread the Word to End the Word, and
began organizing consciousness-raising rallies in schools and
universities around the country.
Over three years of recruiting people to reject the R word, the
campaign has amassed more than 10 million pledges from people
around the world to "support the elimination of the derogatory use
of the R word from everyday speech and promote the acceptance and
inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities."
Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel's name is among them. Last year, he
apologized for using the R word at a private meeting when he was
White House chief of staff in 2009.
"Despite 'sticks and stones' upbringings, we all know the marks
of physical abuse to be temporary, while the destructive power of
language scars the psyche indelibly," Palumbo and Shriver wrote in
a recent blog for the Huffington Post.
While only 25 percent of general education students report being
bullied, this number swells to nearly 75 percent when speaking of
special education students, the blog says. Studies show that as
many as three in four special education students face "chronic and
pervasive" peer harassment in the classroom.
After years of being bullied with the R word, people with
intellectual disabilities internalize the degradation the word
dumps on them and begin to self-identify as a "retard," Palumbo
"Glee" actors Jane Lynch and Lauren Potter, who has an
intellectual disability, appeared at the end of a public service
announcement on the season finale in May with a "Not Acceptable"
message that was the work of Spread the Word to End the Word and
its sister group, the mentor program Best Buddies.
"The R word is without a doubt the new N word," says Eileen
Murphy, state director of Best Buddies Illinois, headquartered in
"We need to raise public consciousness about the detrimental and
hurtful effects of the word 'retarded' and wipe it out of language
for good," she says.
Robyn Monaghan is a freelance writer living in
Robyn Monaghan is a mother and long-time journalist.
See more of Robyn's stories here.
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