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Milton school wants to nix the term 'retarded'

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Neil Johnson
March 7, 2014

MILTON—The French expression “en retard” means “to be late, behind or delayed.”

Kathy Holcombe, mother of 29-year-old Janesville Parker High School graduate Mila Holcombe, who has physical and cognitive disabilities, said people who use the word "retard" are behind, too.

“The French use 'retard' to mean an airplane is late arriving,” Kathy Holcombe said. “People who use the words 'retard' or 'retarded' are the same way. They're way behind in time. They haven't arrived yet.”

Mila Holcombe gave a speech to students at a school assembly Friday at Milton Middle School. Her talk was part of Project UNIFY, a grant-funded school program through the Special Olympics which seeks to create awareness and inclusion of students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The focus for the Holcombes and for the school this week: to get people, students especially, to stop using the words “retard” and “retarded.”  

“It's not OK. It's a bad thing to say, and it hurts. I've been called those words, and I really don't like it. I want to stop it,” Mila Holcombe told The Gazette in an interview Friday.

Even some 15 years after ARC-Wisconsin, the state association that represents children and adults with disabilities, decided to end using its former moniker, The Wisconsin Council for Mentally Retarded Children, the term “retarded” is still commonplace as a clinical and legal term to describe people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

This week, a news story on a U.S. Supreme Court discussion on IQ requirements for death penalty candidates printed in the Wall Street Journal used the terms “mentally retarded” and “mental retardation” seven times.

Yet, it's the casual use of the terms “retarded” and “retard” that the school, as part of its Project UNIFY program, is trying to end, Milton Middle School teacher and the school's project UNIFY coordinator Emily Rothering said.  

She said the words are labels hijacked years ago and thrown around casually by students, often without intent to harm anyone.

“It's not that kids always purposely use 'retarded' or 'retard' to bully someone. It's just commonplace to say those words as synonymous with 'dumb,' 'silly' or 'not rational.' You go to use it, and you don't think twice about what it means.”

Rothering and other staff led a campaign this week “Spread the Word to End the Word.” Students signed a large banner that served as a pledge not to say “retard” or “retarded,” and the school organized giveaways of T-shirts, cinch bags and rubber wristbands emblazoned with “End the Word.”

Students heard talks from teachers on famous celebrities and scientists who have emotional, physical and intellectual disabilities. Mila Holcombe and two former Milton students with disabilities talked about how the terms “retarded” and “retard” makes them feel.

“Please don't use the 'R-word' just for fun or to be mean to others. Please respect everyone for who they are and notice their abilities. We all have abilities and disabilities. Let's find what is good in everyone,” Holcombe said in her speech. 

Jim Hoegemeier, executive director of ARC-Wisconsin, said the group's 20 chapters stopped using the term “retarded” in its organization's name after some members of its board, which included people with disabilities, said they didn't like how “retarded” had been appropriated to describe behavior or to lump people into one group.

“It's hard because there are still uses--clinical uses--of the term 'mentally retarded,' but the term was hijacked a long time ago. 'Retarded' became 'retard.' It became pejorative, even if people aren't actively using it in a mean way," Hoegemeier said.

Hoegemeier said probably the most acceptable term now to describe anyone with a disability is a “person with ID/DD,” or “Intellectual Disability and Developmental Disabilities.” That terminology doesn't paint people with a broad brush or inject connotations.  

He admitted ID/DD is a mouthful for some, and it's still a label.

“It is tough trying to change how we label people because it's a label. You have to wonder, with whatever new term that becomes acceptable—is that term going to be hijacked in some way 15 years from now?” 

Mila Holcombe's speech Friday was one of the district's planned monthly activities, just one part of Project UNIFY.

Rothering said the district plans to share grant funding between the middle school and the high school to roll out monthly activities such as after-school sporting events and recreational activities. 

The emphasis of the program is to unite all students, those with and without disabilities. Rothering said some activities could be bocce or horseshoes.

“It's got to be activities we all can do, we decided,” Rothering said. 

Rothering said the grant funding for project unify is being split between Milton High School and the middle school for programming, and the Special Olympics will monitor how the district uses the money.

She said it's probably the first time the Special Olympics has included an area middle school in Project UNIFY.

“Typically, inclusive sports aren't something middle schools do, and we're trying to change that. Not everybody can play basketball well,” Rothering said.

Rothering said one student this week challenged her on why the term “retard” could be negative.

Rothering explained it to the student this way:

“What if you were having fun after school and did something illogical, like jumping off the back of her living room couch and falling on your head.

"Would it be OK for everyone to reference that later, when somebody did something else silly, by saying, 'Oh, you pulled a Jessica. That's so Jessica to do that.'

"How would you feel to become a label?”



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