You may have seen the billboard on South Neil Street: a smiling 2-year-old girl next to the slogan, "Spread the Word to End the Word."
The "R-word" in question is "retarded," used for years to describe people with mental disabilities but now considered derogatory by those in special education.
Students, parents and educators in Champaign County rallied Wednesday to stamp out use of the “R” word and champion the contributions of people with intellectual disabilities.
Students at more than a dozen middle schools and high schools in Champaign-Urbana, Homer, Tolono and Mahomet, as well as Parkland Community College and the University of Illinois, pledged to stop using the words “retard” and “retarded.”
The “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign is a national effort to get people to “think before they speak,” according to organizers. It was created by youths who participated in the Global Youth Activation Summit in February 2008, held in conjunction with the Special Olympics winter games in Idaho.
Disability advocates had protested nationwide about the casual use of “retard” in the summer 2008 movie “Tropic Thunder.” Local supporters held a “Rally for Respect” at the movie´s opening in Savoy.
One of them was Jennifer Schrad of Champaign, whose daughter Sophia has Down syndrome. Sophia is also the face on the billboard.
Schrad and others say “retard” and “retarded” are hurtful, even in casual conversations not aimed at those with disabilities.
They were floored by some of the comments posted on a letter to the editor in The Daily Illini in September 2008, which criticized a football-game banner hung from a Campustown apartment reading, "Bloomington, IL, Champaign's retarded cousin."
The letter, from the Special Education Graduate Student Association and the UI Department of Special Education, said the word was degrading, supported negative stereotypes and was no better than an ethnic or sexist slur.
The letter produced a backlash from those who saw it as an infringement on free speech or an effort by "PC fanatics" and "sensitivity police."
Schrad says the movement isn't trying to ban the word from the dictionary or fine people for saying it. But she wants people to understand that it's hurtful and make it just as taboo as other slurs.
She's heard the argument that "I don't actually mean somebody who has a developmental disability or an intellectual disability, I just mean stupid or clumsy or worthless." The problem, she says, is that the word can't be separated from its history of "pain and segregation."
"We are asking something very simple, and that is to raise the consciousness of our society about the dehumanizing and hurtful effects of using the words 'retard' and 'retarded,'" Schrad says. "We simply ask them not to use (them) anymore. It's a really easy little thing to do that results in amazing things -- more acceptance and inclusion."
Wednesday's events were sponsored by the Champaign County Down Syndrome Network, Champaign-Urbana Autism Network, Junior League of Champaign-Urbana, Special Olympics, Special Education Graduate Student Association, the UI professional teaching group Epsilon Delta, and Best Buddies International.