Commentary: You can help Special Olympics make ‘respect’ the new R-word

Our moral and ethical codes guide our daily actions. How one acts and speaks toward others can be traced back to what we view as tolerable versus intolerable. The mainstream use of the “R-word” — retarded — is one of those circumstances in which there is a constant battle within the community of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and those who fight for them.

The R-word is common slang widely used by individuals young and old with little thought of whom it may offend. The word stems from the medical term “mental retardation,” which was introduced in 1961 to diagnose individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Since 2010, the terms “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” have been removed from federal health, education and labor policy.

The R-word can deeply insult, cause pain and confuse not only the individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities but those closest to them as well. This was obvious in 2016 in Amarillo at a Special Olympics Texas aquatics practice, when one team experienced the word’s painful impact.

A community member’s use of the R-word directed toward a group of Special Olympics Texas athletes left coaches, parents and family members infuriated, saddened and shaken. Even worse, those athletes were frightened and confused. They did not want to go back to the pool and were hesitant to attend the area aquatics competition for which they had trained so intensely.

Instead of letting the dark extinguish the light, parents, community members and athletes decided to use this pain as an opportunity to unite them to rally and fight for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and to pledge to eliminate the use of the R-word.

This month, Special Olympics Texas is highlighting some of its frontrunners fighting to eliminate the word. The effort involves Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools, education and community groups, plus families and volunteers who will be challenged to take the pledge to Spread the Word to End the Word — a campaign that anyone can join at

We have a long journey to fully terminate the use of this slur; however, we can all do our part in educating those around us. We can all be a voice for inclusion, tolerance and acceptance of all people.

Although the fight is far from over, we should not be discouraged. There is hope in the faces of those individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Focusing on their relentless spirt, resilient nature and remarkable stories will only strengthen our will to continue the fight for “respect” — the new R-word.

Taking the pledge is the first step toward changing the world for a large population within our society. For those looking to take a more active role in creating an inclusive environment in your community, consider becoming a teammate.

Since 1989, Special Olympics has offered Unified Sports: a program that enables people with and without intellectual and disabilities to team up and play various sports together. Over the last few years, the initiative has grown vastly, showing that society is becoming more inclusive, especially among our youth. This program has opened the eyes to many — enabling them to see how people with intellectual and developmental disabilities have abilities and are competitive, just like themselves.

Yet, Special Olympics Texas cannot provide these world-class programs without volunteers and generous donors. With more than 4,000 Central Texas area athletes involved in the program, it costs Special Olympics Texas $150 to fund a full year’s worth of competition, training and health screenings for each athlete.

As you take a stand against the R-word, please also consider making a generous contribution to Special Olympics Texas and help give people with intellectual developmental disabilities an outlet to experience respect and their competitive abilities.

Tybroski is the Amarillo area director for the Special Olympics.

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