Eliminating the R word

Woman speaks out about living with an intellectual disability

Bonnie Belec bbelec@thetelegram.com
Published on March 5, 2014
Gail St. Croix says using the R word, either as a joke or to describe someone’s intellect, is no joke to people like her who have to live with intellectual disabilities every day. She and other groups are speaking out in support of the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign today internationally. — Photo by Rhonda Hayward/The Telegram

Gail St. Croix says she was a young woman before she realized she wasn’t “retarded.”

After being called the R word for many of her young years, she said it wasn’t until she moved out on her own and began reflecting on her life that she realized what the word meant.

Born in Labrador in 1960, she said she spent many years restrained in the family home and was kept out of school because nobody knew how to take care of her or what to do with her.

“They didn’t know what to do with people with disabilities back then,” St. Croix said during a recent interview to draw attention to a campaign called Spread the Word to End the Word.

“Living at home wasn’t always the best thing. I was chained on in a crib from the time I was four or five till I was nine or 10 years old,” she said.

“That’s when I was placed in Exon  House,” said the 54-year-old St. Croix, who lives in St. John’s in her own apartment.

St. Croix said the first time she heard the R word was from her mother’s lips.

“When you’re a young child you don’t know what it means. It was used all the time and in the Exon House we were all called ‘retards,’” she said, grimacing as she said the word.

“It wasn’t until I moved out on my own and started talking to other people with disabilities that I actually learned what the R word meant. I was doing research on my own, determined to find out who I really was, when I discovered what it meant,” said St. Croix.

She said every time she hears it, it makes her cringe and she only ever utters the word when she’s trying to bring attention to how unacceptable it is for people to use it — this story for example.

In 2008, Special Olympics launched the website www.r-word.org to combat the inappropriate use of the R word and to help lead protests against media use of the word in response to the film “Tropic Thunder,” released the same year.

According to theguardian.com, the comedy, starring Ben Stiller, was the subject of an America-wide Rally for Respect, organized by a coalition of disability groups.  

“The complaint was that the word ‘retard,’ used 17 times in the film to denote a person with learning difficulties, was unacceptable. Hate speech of this kind was accused of inspiring discrimination, abuse, negative stereotypes, disenfranchisement and violence,” the website says.

As a result, in 2009 a group of American youth launched the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign and it’s been spreading internationally year after year.

This appears to be the first year it is drawing attention from Newfoundland groups.

Kelly White, executive director of Coalition of Persons with Disabilities Newfoundland and Labrador (COD-NL), says the word is offensive to people with intellectual disabilities.

She said COD-NL , an advocacy organization concerned with all people with disabilities, promoting their rights and raising public awareness of their needs, hasn’t been involved in the campaign before, but it is hoping to start now.

The campaign is held annually on the first Wednesday in March.

In recognition of it, Denelle Gale, a Memorial University student, is part of a group organizing an event today at the University Centre from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“The campaign is trying to stop the use of the word because it can be very offensive to individuals. At MUN we will being having special guests speak from the autism society and Special Olympics. They’ll be discussing the importance of inclusion of individuals with disabilities. We will also be doing games, having a bake sale, and people will have the opportunity to pledge to stop the use of the R word,” she told The Telegram Tuesday.

Darrin Reid, program director of Special Olympics Newfoundland and Labrador, will be one of the guest speakers.

He says education and awareness is an extension of what Special Olympics does, and this is the first time the provincial branch has been involved in the campaign.

“It’s the first time I heard of it, to be quite honest, but it certainly is important, and our organization is always trying to spread the word,” said Reid.

St. Croix, who has been volunteering in the community for more than 30 years, says she can’t believe people are still calling people the R word or joking about it.

“For me, it is not a joke and for people like me. Respect us for who we are. After all this time you expect it wouldn’t exist anymore. I don’t know what we have to do to teach people,” she said.

Even though she says every day is a constant struggle, St. Croix says she is at a good place in her life right now.

“When out on your own and you don’t have supports that you should have to help you get from a damaged child to a worthwhile adult, it takes a lot of work,” she said.

With determination and help from friends she built up her self-esteem and feeling of self-worth.

“I’m now where I want to be. I’m sometimes a bit concerned talking about my life because it can be traumatic. I get depressed at times, but when I was asked to do this I was at a place where I could say yes,” said St. Croix, who will celebrate her 17th anniversary this year with her boyfriend.