Words can hurt. They don't leave marks, but they can do emotional harm.
When our son was diagnosed with a mental disability as a young child, our family became sensitive to the term "retard."
It's a common expression, unfortunately, one most people don't think twice in spouting. They may not intend to offend anyone within ear shot, but ignorance is a poor excuse.
"When anybody with a disability hears 'retard,' it's the ultimate insult, a slap in the face," Kirsten Spangenberg said.
The Boone Grove senior softball player has become more acute to the issue as the local member of the Indiana High School Athletic Association's Student Advisory Committee. In December, the IHSAA announced a partnership with Special Olympics at the committee's urging after an inspiring presentation by Special Olympian Andrew Peterson.
"As soon as he started speaking, the way he tells stories, it hits you in the heart hard," Spangenberg said. "It was so eye-opening. I used to hear Special Olympics, I'd think of someone who always needed help with something. After meeting someone like Andrew, it changes your whole perspective. They can hold conversations. They can dribble a basketball. It's amazing what they can do on their own. We completely judge them before we even remotely know anything about them."
Back in June, while at the IHSAA's leadership conference, Spangenberg attended a respect rally where people signed banners pledging to never say the "R word" again. The endeavor was part of a national campaign titled, "Spread the word to end the word." During the same trip, Spangenberg also took part in an obstacle course race, where she was partnered with a special needs child.
"The look on his face at the end, he told me it was the best two hours of his life," she said. "We took a picture and he said he was going to make it the background on his iPad. The little things mean so much to them. It was so nice."
Soon after, Spangenberg spoke with Wheeler principal Don Gandy, a member of the IHSAA executive committee who works with the student committee, on how they could bring the message closer to home.
What better way, they figured, than to coordinate an activity in conjunction with the football game between the Bearcats and Wolves?
Three weeks from today, when the teams kick off the 2013 season at Wheeler, fans from both schools will have the chance to sign a banner to show their support of the cause. Whichever school accumulates the most names will earn a traveling trophy. Rubber bracelets will also be sold for $1. Special Olympians and their parents will be admitted free and recognized at halftime.
Last winter, when Boone Grove played Hebron in boys basketball, Special Olympians including Boone's Jake Hemphill took the court. Boone A.D. Kerrie Schludecker remembers the overflow of emotion that night.
"They're our biggest fans. Jake's our biggest cheerleader," Schludecker said. "They wanted their role models to watch them play. Jake wanted to try to do what Dean (Hill) did. It was the neatest feeling to see. Everyone in the stands was crying. That started all the kids thinking, 'Let's do this.'"
The event is part of a community service project for Boone's Student Athlete Advisory Club, a group of more than 60 kids headed by Spangenberg. Coincidentally, Boone and Wheeler are close to becoming the first two Indiana high schools named official Special Olympics partners. As part of the process, they must raise funds, do volunteer work and heighten awareness.
All are important, but effective change of attitudes and beliefs only comes with awareness. If you're going to Wheeler, please sign the banner and buy a bracelet or two.
If it hasn't already been erased, let that be the beginning of the end of the "R word" in your vocabulary.