They Call Me Names: National End R-Word Day Exclusive

For those of you who haven’t heard, yesterday was national end R-word day. The day was launched by as a campaign to stop the use of the derogatory term “retard(ed)” to describe individuals with intellectual, cognitive, and learning disabilities. While this site exists year-round to bring awareness to this issue, yesterday was a day when we all should have supported the cause. Here at the James Stanfield Company, we feel strongly about ending hurtful name-calling, teasing, and bullying of individuals with special needs.

Unfortunately, this is a not a new problem but one that has been around for quite some time. In 1970, Dr. James Stanfield set out to bring awareness to this very issue in a documentary entitled, “They Call Me Names.” Read Dr. Stanfield’s account of how he first encountered this issue and what led him to create this documentary below…and don’t forget to pledge to end the r-word here:

They Call Me Names:

“Individuals with intellectual disabilities are exquisitely capable of knowing what we think of them… and unfortunately what we think of them is not very nice.”-  Dr. Robert Edgerton, Anthropologist and Sociologist

I first got the idea to make a documentary about the names and labels associated with intellectual disabilities when I was preparing for entrance into the doctorate program at USC in 1970. Along with education, I also had an interest in film so I decided to major in Special Education and minor in Instructional Technology.

Prior to this, I had made a lot of films to use in my own classroom when I was teaching elementary special education. I used those films and still pictures to model correct social behavior. That, of course, eventually led to Video Modeling years later.

During that time, I was teaching kids in special education with mild intellectual disabilities in a “special room”.  There was only one room and it was in a bungalow. My students had separate lunchtimes and separate recesses from the REGULAR students. I think this was done mainly because school officials did not want our kids to get hurt, but what they were inadvertently doing was stigmatizing these kids as being deficient.  I believe that one of the worse insult you can give someone is to question his or her intelligence.

My classroom was known as the “MR” classroom and if you were seen going in or out of it, your intelligence was questioned. The other teachers at the time, professors at the university and most district level staff that I would come in contact with threw the term “mentally retarded” around easily and there was not an issue then of whether it was the right word or not. The sentiment was that the kids would not understand anyway. But they did.

In 1971, the Kennedy Foundation introduced the Special Olympics. The idea was to give students with special needs the opportunity to develop physically and showcase their abilities.  They also wanted to bring physical education back to those who were labeled “mentally retarded” because at that time, the idea was “we can’t afford to give them that extra time away from the classroom so we will just teach them all the time.” The Foundation announced the first Special Olympics in 1971 to occur in the LA Coliseum. I saw that as an opportunity to make a film that would show these kids overcoming obstacles and having a chance to be recognized as being important. I thought, “This is great, I’ll document these kids being successful and their joy in that.” Everybody got a prize but some got to actually win. For most of those kids, it was the first time they ever got to win at anything. I was in a documentary class at this time and I convinced a few of my classmates that we should document this event

Before we covered the actual events, we went to visit the training camps that had been set up to coach the students before the games. At the camps, the kids would decide which event they wanted to be in, depending on what experiences they had had. Volunteers, teachers, and coaches would then train them and put them on a schedule to get them in shape for the main event. During one of the shoots, I noticed a group that I was going to be following sitting in a circle with a teacher and several of the students were crying. I was surprised to see this at what was supposed to be an uplifting and exciting time. When I asked what was wrong, one of the students looked up and said, “they call me names. “ It turns out that someone had yelled out the word “retard” to this student and it just broke him up. Others in that group heard it and you could just tell that they were crushed. The teacher talked to them about what had happened and the students talked about the pain they felt when they heard that word. Mostly, they wanted to know why people have to use it.  At that point, the purpose of the film changed from covering the Olympics to the problem with this label, and it was a serious problem.

To gain more insight into the effects of the label, we interviewed professionals in Special Education, Psychology, and Social Anthropology, many of which appear in the film. The most poignant interview was one with Dr. Robert Edgerton, an anthropologist and sociologist whose statement became the opening line of the film. He said, “Individuals with intellectual disabilities are exquisitely capable of knowing what we think of them… and unfortunately what we think of them is not very nice.” That started it. After that, we talked to parents, students, teachers, and professors in teacher training programs. One teacher said that at school he would constantly hear kids calling other kids a “tomey” and didn’t know what that meant. He came to find out that Mrs. Tomey was a special education teacher and if you were in her class, you were referred to as a “tomey.” It became clear to me that this was a serious issue that needed to be addresses. Imagine going to school everyday of your life thinking, “I’m not as good as everyone else.”

At this time, the deinstitutionalization movement was also underway. I heard from one professor that when people who had been institutionalized came back into the community, they preferred saying they had been in prison rather than saying they had been in an institution for the “retarded”. The label was that bad.

The documentary I made was intercut with students achieving at the Special Olympics so it had an upbeat side. But the real message was that being called “retarded” was damaging these kids and that we should start advocating for its disuse. I first presented the film at an AAMR conference (now AAIDD). I expected that everything would really start to change after that but a year after the film was shown, I saw little in the way of true change. People still used the term “MR” to refer to classes for students with intellectual disabilities and the term “retarded” was still a part of the name of some organizations. Something small had been started though. It took many years, but now we don’t have as many segregated classrooms.  More and more students with developmental disabilities are entering mainstream classes and students with mild impairments are receiving extra help within general education classes.

It all still comes down to this word, however. It’s amazing to me that 40 years later, there is even a need for an “end r-word day.”  It makes me think, “How much has really changed?” It seems like every day I hear people in the entertainment industry using the word “retarded” or children and even adults saying, “oh that’s retarded”. My hope is that someday students will never have to say; “they call me names.”

As always, I welcome all of your questions and comments.

James Stanfield, Ed.D.

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