In the highest offices of the land, the then-chief of staff to the most powerful man in the world thoughtlessly makes a slur against people with intellectual disabilities.
Although he apologized, Rahm Emanuel criticized more conservative Democrats last year, by saying, “That’s (bleeping) retarded,” according to The Wall Street Journal.
The profanity is not what is shocking; rather; the derisive use of the word “retarded” is on the same plane as the “N” word and has no place in civil conversation, much less on government signs and stationery, according to people with intellectual disabilities.
“The ‘R’ word has been used so much in movies, with kids, and slang as derogatory. Even adults – you hear them in the store saying, ‘Oh, I am so retarded,’” said Mary Clare Carlson, executive director of People First of Wisconsin. “It is a very painful word.”
Yet, people with intellectual disabilities are still the safe scapegoats. In fact, in March 2009, President Obama himself made fun of Special Olympics athletes on “The Tonight Show” when Jay Leno asked him about his bowling game.
A national movement to remove the word “retarded” from law books and medical terminology is gaining support from the White House, led primarily by the intellectually disabled. Already, Maryland lawmakers stripped the term from legal jargon, and 47 states throughout the country have removed the “R” word from their human service agencies.
Medically, mental retardation refers to a disability that is characterized by significant limitations in intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior as expressed in conceptual, social and practical adaptive skills. The term has pejorative connotations and refers to the disability first and the person second.
Advocates for people with disabilities favor people-first language because it makes the disability an aspect of the person, rather than allowing a disability to define a person. It is comparable to a person not wanting to be called the “messy person” or the “fat person” because that allows their least attractive characteristic to define him or her.
People First Wisconsin also supports language that recognizes the person first and the disability second.
“The person is not retarded, or handicapped,” said Carlson. “We need to remember to put the person first. For example, a people-first language would be “a person with Down syndrome,” not a “Down syndrome person.”
While no one would dispute the monumental support from the Knights of Columbus toward helping those with intellectual disabilities, the terminology on their bright yellow aprons and Tootsie Roll wrappers often caused the very individuals they were helping to cringe.
By Zoey Mercado
Look at me
and tell me
who do you see?
Do you think I’m not the same?
You never know what I feel
My heart is shattered glass –
I wish I understood why
I want to be in the world called
Being disabled is not a bad thing!
“The aprons all said, ‘Help the Retarded and Mentally Handicapped,’” said Carlson. “We totally respected the board and didn’t say we should boycott the group, but we wanted to talk to them and tell them how we felt.”
When members of People First advocated for change within the Knights of Columbus organizations, they learned that while the organization agreed to change the wording on the Tootsie Rolls and on the production of new aprons, many members retained the out of date aprons.
“We learned that every member purchases their own aprons, and because of that, a lot of groups weren’t changing over to the new ones,” said Carlson.
In an unprecedented effort, the benefactors of the Tootsie Roll fundraisers began fundraisers of their own to purchase new aprons/vests for the Knights of Columbus.
“So we volunteered to buy new vests for those who could not afford them and People First gave the Knights $500 for them,” said Carlson. “It was really empowering for our members because it allowed them to give back to the community just like the Knights did.”
As the second-term president of People First Wisconsin, Lisa Gillson, a Minocqua resident with Down syndrome, is proud of the group’s efforts to give back to the Knights of Columbus.
“It always made me feel like crying when I saw the word retarded on the vests and the Tootsie Rolls,” she admitted. “It made me feel like I wasn’t a person. After we talked to the local and state Knights of Columbus, they promised to change the words. It made me feel so much better – after all I am the same inside as anyone else, with the same hopes and dreams.”
A member of Holy Family Catholic Church, the 23-year-old Gillson, who refers to her disability as “Up Syndrome,” is dedicated to shuttering institutions for those with disabilities; she also advocates for fair wages, volunteers in her parish and desires to grow in her faith. She and her mother are professed members of the Secular Franciscans, a move that has helped her to grow spiritually.
“My mom joined first and then I came to the meetings, and when they asked me if I wanted to be professed, I said yes,” said Gillson. “I love it, and I love Jesus and he will always be a part of my life.”
has partnered with Special Olympics to launch a nationwide campaign to eliminate the ‘R’ word.
For more information: www.specialolympics.org/why-the-r-word-must-go.aspx.
In addition to participating in several Special Olympics events, and international tennis tournaments, Gillson is an accomplished public speaker. She has traveled to England and Scotland on behalf of People First.
“I really like speaking to others,” she said. “I have a very supportive mom and I love her and am glad I have her.”
Living in Grafton, Zoey Mercado is not regularly exposed to insulting verbiage regarding his disability, but he has heard the words and they are painful.
“It affects me sometimes and I have a hard time getting rid of my feelings when I hear someone say that people like me are retarded,” he said. “It makes me feel stupid and like I am loser, but I am not. I am a winner.”
Mercado, 21, is an accomplished artist, poet, author and musician. He has taken guitar lessons for the past four years, hopes to one day give lessons, sings in a choir, and has performed as an Elvis impersonator several times.
“I like different types of music – Elvis, Michael Jackson, Michael W. Smith and Jeremy Camp,” he said, “I also like Arerosmith, movie sound tracks and ‘N Sync.”
While he recognizes that he has a disability, Mercado knows he is far from helpless. When he isn’t practicing his music, writing or doing art, he takes tickets, ushers and cleans the theaters at Marcus Theaters in Saukville, where he can explore his other passion … the big screen.
“Oh, I love my job and love being able to see all sorts of movies,” he said. “I really enjoy action and adventure movies the best.”
For Sofia Walz-Choinacki, a member of St. Jude Parish, Wauwatosa, living with Down syndrome has not curtailed her aspirations.
Walz-Choinacki, 21, belongs to a transition program through the Wauwatosa school district. She alternates class time with working at the Medical College of Wisconsin as a file clerk.
“I did data entry at first and now I am doing filing and alphabetizing,” she said, explaining she finished class and work in June and plans to stay involved in the community.
In addition to participating in multiple events with Special Olympics, Walz-Choinacki belongs to the Best Buddies program partnered with Marquette University, and the Down syndrome Awareness Association.
“I was the Down syndrome Awareness Ambassador at the Milwaukee Zoo and gave two speeches and was on Channel 12 TV,” she said. “I really liked being able to talk to people who came here to walk for the fundraiser.”
Normally upbeat, Walz-Choinacki’s emotions change dramatically when she hears others speak of those with intellectual disabilities as retarded, and it is something she heard occasionally while attending middle school.
“I feel uncomfortable and offended by it and it makes me feel stupid,” she said. “Someone in middle school told me that a friend of mine who has Down syndrome was retarded and I stuck up for her; I said, ‘No, she is not retarded.’ It made me upset.”
While Walz-Choinacki understands that she needs help in order to navigate through everyday life, she said she is blessed to have wonderful parents to support her.
“My parents are a blessing and they know me, and don’t worry about what I have,” she said. “I also have a strong faith and am a hard worker so I don’t get very down. I have many dreams – my dreams are the way, I am pretty young yet, but I really want to be famous one day.”