A SOWI staff member reflects on the Inclusion Revolution and the R-word

March 7, 2018 Blog, Featured

Brittany Neukirchen is the Director of Special Events for the southeastern region of Wisconsin, covering Jefferson, Kenosha, Racine, Rock and Walworth counties. She has been on SOWI staff for 5 1/2 years and she is a leading advocate for inclusion in her community and beyond. For today’s Spread the Word to End the Word Day, she recently wrote about what inclusion and the elimination of the R-word mean to her. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

By Brittany Neukirchen

If you have never read John Franklin Stephens’ letter to Ann Coulter after she used the R-word it won’t take anything I write to convince you not to use that word. He lays it out pretty clearly.

I’ve always understood why the R-word was a terrible word to use but it was convincing others that was always hard to convey the message.

“What is the big deal?” “I am not using it to describe a person so who cares?” “That is what that word means, isn’t it?”

It’s so clear to me…if someone says they don’t like something, why keep doing it? Time and time again athletes and people with intellectual disabilities have had the guts and heart to speak out against the use of this word. That’s all it took for me to understand it. But I have been around these athletes my entire life.

My mom grew up with a friend who had Down syndrome that she played baseball with. She could relate to him because neither were allowed to play on the boys’ high school baseball team. Through that experience I was exposed to people with intellectual disabilities early in life. I have always understood their hardships. The hurdles they overcome, sometimes so effortlessly and sometimes with true grit, to just be a part of society. To be accepted. To be “normal.” Whatever that even means. Then I started working with Special Olympics and saw again their passion, drive and just plain abilities.

Left: Neukirchen with athlete Lee Andrews at a bowling tournament; Right: Neukirchen with athlete Jacob Best during Summer Games

Left: Neukirchen with athlete Lee Andrews at a bowling tournament; Right: Neukirchen with athlete Jacob Best during Summer Games

I thought to myself maybe that is why people don’t get it. They see people with intellectual disabilities as a group of people. Separate from themselves. They can’t connect to them or are just naïve because they have never been exposed to them. Anyone who has been at a Special Olympics tournament or watched an athlete get a medal or ribbon would never wonder what the big deal is about using that word. They would know why it’s a big deal we don’t use it.

So I join the movement because of this. Because anyone who has a defense for that word, or an argument in defense of it would be easily swayed after talking with John Stephens, a global ambassador; or Gabi from Kenosha Special Olympics; or Tim Shriver.

The favor people with intellectual disabilities ask of us is simply to take one word out of our vocabulary. That doesn’t seem like too much. It actually seems something very simple to do something kind for someone else. One of my favorite quotes comes from Tim Shriver when he accepted the ESPY on behalf of his late mother Eunice Kennedy Shriver. He stated, “They (the athletes of Special Olympics) have what the world is looking for.” In all the hatred and mess; in all the tough decisions, daily grind and big world problems, this one seems a rather simple one to solve and something we can do to feel closer as a global community and just simply to be kind to one another. It is one step in the right direction of making the world a better place for everyone and the athletes are showing us how to do that.

When you use the R-word you are never using it to describe something positive. It is never used to describe how great a day was, or how wonderful someone is, what a good time you had or how fun, intelligent and wonderful someone is. Therefore, no matter how you use it – it is negative. All the athletes I have met in Special Olympics can be described in words such as smart, fun, loving, giving, smiley, wonderful, outgoing, strong, fast, caring and exceptional. The R-word does not even remotely come to mind when describing anyone let alone an athlete. Spend one day with an athlete at a sporting event and you will agree.

So I sign this off the same way John did in his open letter about the R-word.

A friend you haven’t made yet,

Spread the Word to End the Word and support inclusion by signing the pledge.

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