La Salle students pledge to stop using dehumanizing labels

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PROVIDENCE – When Jonathan Estrada hears his peers or radio announcers using derogatory labels such as “retard” and “retarded,” he quickly angers and becomes filled with resentment.

These cruel words strike a personal chord with the 16 year-old La Salle Academy junior, whose older brother Emmett has Down Syndrome, and who according to his younger sibling, just wants to be accepted and respected like any other person.

Estrada, a parishioner of St. Brendan Church, Riverside, added that these negative labels dehumanize those affected by various challenges, who have the ability to comprehend and often internalize the callous wisecracks.

“They don’t really understand people with intellectual challenges and disabilities,” Estrada said, referring to those who make the callous remarks. He emphasized that a narrowness of acceptance and regard for individuals with mental and physical challenges still remains in society.

“I don’t say I have a brother with Down Syndrome, I say I have a brother,” Estrada emphasized.

Estrada and 30 other members of the La Salle chapter of Best Buddies, a international organization whose volunteers create opportunities for individuals with developmental and intellectual challenges, recently participated in the global campaign “Spread the Word to End the Word” to heighten awareness of the psychologically damaging effects caused by the words “retard” and “retarded” and to encourage people to stop using such language. The worldwide campaign to promote inclusion and end a form of verbal bullying was co-sponsored by Special Olympics.

According to Stephanie Maloney, faculty moderator of the La Salle Best Buddies chapter, more than 1,000 members of the school community signed a petition, pledging their support not to use the dehumanizing words.

“Most people do not think of this word as hate speech, but indeed using ‘retard’ as a term of derision is just as cruel and offensive as any other slur,” Maloney said. “The word hurts, even if it is not directed at a person with disabilities. The inherent dignity of people with disabilities is called into question whenever this term is used.”

Maloney, who teaches religion at La Salle, emphasized that despite differences in physical appearance and intellectual abilities, “all persons reflect the nature and love of their Creator, and are bestowed with the ability to love and be loved.”

Chapter members also gathered with 10 “buddies” from Meeting Street’s Carter School for a lunch social held in the school cafeteria.

The high school-aged guests, who were accompanied by classroom assistants, enjoyed socializing with their La Salle friends, who baked cookies, brownies and cupcakes to share with the visitors.

“It was the most fun I’ve had at lunch in all my years at La Salle,” said Jeffrey Jaquith, chapter president. “It was just smiles all the time. Everyone was happy.”

Jaquith said he was impressed by the respect and hospitality that the La Salle student body offered to the guests. He added that several La Sallians inquired about joining the chapter and its activities.

Jessica Desrosiers, chapter vice president and a member of St. Ann Church, Providence, said she never fully appreciated people affected by various challenges.

“It has given me an idea of what these children go through,” Desrosiers said, noting that the chapter volunteers attended a training workshop last fall to help prepare them to work with their new friends.

The senior, who plans to become a registered nurse, noted that too often people are ready to judge others.

“I can’t say that I wasn’t one of them,” she admitted, adding that participation in the Best Buddies program has taught her to be more accepting of individuals faced with challenges.

In addition to the special luncheon, members of the La Salle chapter sent Valentine’s Day greetings to their friends and enjoyed a Christmas party. Ten La Sallians serve as special peer buddies to their Carter School friends, meeting twice per month and maintaining weekly contact thorough telephone calls and emails.

According to Karen Rameaka, head of the Carter School, many of her students don’t have non-disabled, same-age peers.

“An event like the luncheon gave them an opportunity to be typical teenagers and socialize with their friends at lunch,” she said. “It’s really a partnership and a friendship that shines through.”