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Calls to Action

Strange Voices: Why “Spread the Word to End the Word” Matters

This post is from Amy Gravino who serves on the communications committee for Autism Speaks. Amy is an adult on the spectrum who wanted to share a story on Spread The Word To End The Word awareness day which is today. You can learn more about Spread The Word To End The Word at www.r-word.org.

In June of 2001, there was no Amy Gravino. The girl who stepped on stage and quietly accepted her diploma was just a shell, a shadow made of all the names her peers had called her for six, seven, eight years. Their words covered her like kohl-dark calligraphy, stains on the skin too deep to ever wash out.

 “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

…If ever there was a nursery rhyme written by someone who forgot what junior high was like, that one is it.

In reality, words can and do hurt, and they can still hurt no matter how old or how many years past grade school you are.

I can still remember the first time one of my peers called me a retard. By the time seventh grade rolled around, the simple, childish name-calling of elementary school (“Buck-toothed beaver”, “Bugs Bunny”) was cast aside in favor of a more vicious brand of insult.

Not that my feelings weren’t hurt and my self-esteem destroyed when they made fun of my teeth, my toes, even my glasses. Every syllable contributed to the overwhelming insecurity that I felt in my appearance all through high school, and even though I no longer think of myself as ugly, it is a more familiar word, so much so that I don’t think I will ever get used to the sound of “beautiful.”  

But “retard” was different. The problem was no longer something that they or I could see. The only way I knew it was there was when they called me that.  “Retard” is an arrow that’s aimed at part of your soul, and every time it’s said, it takes a little piece of you away.

It was their way of disregarding me as a person.

That was new. Worst of all, there was nothing I could do to “fix” it.

If only someone had told me that I never needed to “fix” anything at all.

If only someone could tell every child and adult on the autism spectrum that the word “retard” is not a symbol of their brokenness, but instead a reflection of other people’s ignorance.  

If only those who use “retard” so casually in conversation could know what it is like to be on the other side of that word.

Every single person who is reading this today has the power to make sure that no one on the autism spectrum has to go through what I went through ever again. When someone says the word “retard,” there is a conscious and deliberate choice being made in that moment to use that word instead of another one.

The only option, then, is to choose differently.

Choose to let someone’s pain take priority over the desire to say whatever you want.

Choose to speak up when someone does say the R-word, because your silence is their approval.

Choose not to ignore the long-lasting hurt that words can cause.

Even if the person you called the R-word doesn’t remember your face, or your name, or when it happened, they will remember how it made them feel. These are scars that words can leave behind, and they are just as real the ones that come from sticks and stones.

Spread the word. End the word. 

Are you ready to choose differently?