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Local schools launch campaign to stamp out use of R-word

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Respect is the New R Word

Irene Cheff, left, and Mariah Ramos talk Monday to a school assembly at Sinagua Middle School about not using the word retard. Irene and Mariah are part of a team from Coconino High School who gave the assembly as a service project. (Jake Bacon/Arizona Daily Sun)

Clinton Diver knows that there's a word you shouldn't use.

The word is "retarded."

It's a word that can start fights, he said. What he's saying is that it's hurtful, and when he's been called the similarly bruising "retard," it makes him "a little ticked off."

Clinton is a former special education student at Coconino High School and he still enjoys Special Olympics with the school. At Coconino, he has friends.

These friends want to end the casual use of the two words.

What was once a clinical term to describe limited cognitive capacities has been phased out in favor of terms like "intellectual disability." But the use of the R-word as a pejorative synonym for stupid, dumb or anything undesirable -- whether said with cruel intention or not -- lingers.

There's a nationwide movement, called "Spread the Word to End the Word," to stamp out the derisive slang. Students at Sinagua Middle heard from their Coconino peers Monday and shared their message that the R-word is a harmful word, and you never really know who you're hurting when you say it. A person with a disability, or one of their family members, can be within earshot.

"It hurts a lot of kids' feelings at Sinagua," said eighth-grader and Sinagua student body president Cody Seery. "It makes them feel like they're less than everyone else, and we want them to feel like they're equal, because they are."


Irene Cheff, a Coconino senior, said her friends with disabilities do understand that they're being talked down to when somebody calls them the R-word. She said many can't speak up for themselves, but a video produced by the Coconino students showed their special education classmates saying the word makes them feel angry, annoyed, stressed out and left out.

"It hurts you when you see they are hurt," she said.

Senior Mariah Ramos, who has an uncle with Down syndrome, said eliminating the word is a matter of respect.

"You want to be treated the way you treat people," she said.

The Coconino "End the Word" crew challenged Sinagua to a friendly competition to see which school can get the most online pledges against the word (Coconino has more than 500).

Sinagua is holding up its end of the awareness campaign all week. Students will hold an essay and poster contest, and they'll sell T-shirts that encourage respect -- and friendship, inclusion, acceptance and unity -- at the school sock hop.

"We don't want to hurt anybody's feelings," said eighth-grader Rebecca Khachikian. "We want them to feel welcome."

Classmate Isabelle Muetzel agreed.

"They're one of us, too."

Hillary Davis can be reached at or 556-2261.

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