Students team up with Special Olympics for movement

Senior Kari Jo Johnson and her brother, Zach (Photo courtesy of Kari Jo Johnson)
Senior Kari Jo Johnson and her brother, Zach pose for a picture. (Photo courtesy of Kari Jo Johnson)

Senior Kari Jo Johnson said when she hears the word “retarded,” “It kills me … It’s like the absolute sharpest knife that punches you in the gut and makes you lose your breath.” Johnson’s younger brother, Zach, is 18 and has Down syndrome.

Johnson said she knows her brother looks different. He has a vocabulary of less than 20 words. But she has never seen him as different from herself.

“[The word] really hurts,” she said. “It’s used in such a negative context that it’s terrible.”

Johnson decided to do something about the word. Her mother e-mailed her last year about a national campaign the Special Olympics launched called “Spread the Word to End the Word.” It asks people to pledge not to use the word “retard” or “retarded” because the negative connotation hurts people who are intellectually disabled.

Johnson decide this spring was her last chance to do something with the campaign at St. Thomas. She contacted senior John Busch, whose brother Joey also has Down syndrome.

Getting pledges from St. Thomas community

With the help of three others, Johnson and Busch have planned a May 4 “Spread the Word to End the Word” event. Tables will be set up in the Grill and cafeteria so students can join more than 131,000 people nationwide who have pledged to stop using the word.

Students who fill out a pledge will receive wristbands and be photographed. “We are going to compile all the pictures on a big poster,” Johnson said. The poster will be displayed at the May 4 event.

The event will feature a Special Olympics speaker who has cerebral palsy and a panel of students who have family or friends with intellectual disabilities.

Johnson has also created a video featuring students on campus talking about the r-word and how it makes them feel.

Johnson said she is amazed by all the support she has received. Her original vision of sitting at a table with Busch in the Grill for a day talking to people about the pledge has expanded.

“Everyone has been completely supportive, and it’s been more than I can ever ask for,” Johnson said.

RHA, STAR and University Relations have helped her with the event. The Special Olympics has helped set up speakers and donated campaign gear for students. The Special Olympics will feature Johnson’s video on its campaign website. Johnson also will intern with the Special Olympics this fall.

“I’m really excited, and it’s really going to be beneficial to the campus community I think.”

Ending the r-word

Johnson thinks using the r-word makes people sound less educated.

“It makes you look ignorant, a little more closed-minded, because there’s this whole pool of other words that you could use,” she said.

Johnson wants people to understand that intellectually disabled people, like her brother Zach, are the same as “you and I.”

“For all we know, he’s a bajillion times happier than we are, because he doesn’t care about what people think,” she said. “He lives life and gets up every morning smiling because he loves movies, and he loves basketball, and his family, and he loves grilled cheese and French fries. And if he has all those things, that’s all he needs.”

Theresa Malloy can be reached at

44 Replies to “Students team up with Special Olympics for movement”

  1. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this message could be spread beyond the college campus? What Kari and John are doing is very commendable. Thank you Kari and John. Hopefully the work you are doing will spread just like a drop of water in a pond.

  2. I agree, what they are doing is wonderful. People need to know. For all of us who feel the hurt because we have someone close to us that has a handicap, I am glad something is being done. Thanks Kari

  3. If the world had an ounce of the love the handicapped have to give, it would be a better place…good job Kari, I’m really proud of you!

  4. I don’t understand this. Disabled people are most definitely not the same as “you and I”. Their minds and/or bodies work differently than – that is, NOT AS WELL AS – most peoples’ do. Skirting around that reality with people-first language or some such political correctness is the same as promoting “color-blindness” as a cure for racism. Come on.

  5. I’m not exactly sure what you mean Carla.

    To me, all the physical or mental differences in the world do not disqualify someone from being seen as my equal. Meaning they are the same to me as you and the rest of the world are. No one is arguing that we are all physically and mentally equal. I can guarantee you and I are physically different. However, these inequalities do not negate human decency. If you are saying these disparities between yourself and an individual provide justification for the negative use of the r-word I would love to hear your rationale.

    Moving on, the actual pledge is “I pledge and support the elimination of the derogatory use of the r-word from everyday speech and promote the acceptance and inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities.” ( As you can see no one is attempting to skirt reality, in fact, this pledge reinforces reality. The reality is the derogatory use of the r-word promotes non-acceptance and the exclusion of people with intellectual disabilities.

    Sadly, this is only the most recent example in a history plagued with similar examples. Language is often used to dehumanize others. I am thankful for all those who acknowledge this issue and decide not to sit idly such as Kari Jo, John, and many others.

  6. I have been on this crusade to stop using the “R” word for years and years. If I hear someone use the word in the context of putting someone down, for example meaning the person is stupid, dumb, etc. I usually approach that person and tell them I am offended by the way they are using the word. I also tell them that most of my best friends are mentally handicapped or developmentally disabled and to me the person’s use of “Retarded” is like using the “N” work to discribe black persons – Inappropriate and rude. Most people have apologized once confronted. Hopefully they will choose their words more carefully in the future. Putting others down just makes that person seem childish in the listener’s mind. Good luck! I support this cause 100%!

  7. Whoo! Go Brett! Thanks for standing up for a great cause!
    And Kari Jo and John, you guys should be really proud of what you have done for this campaign. It’s such a great thing to see such strong and fantastic people using their voices in such a positive way, like creating equality and eliminating derogatory and ignorant terms. You guys are superstars! Keep up the good work!

  8. Carla….we’re not talking about a “cure” for anything! What is being addressed is that all people are equal, no matter what they face. Thank you Kari Jo for bringing this to your campus. It’s definitely a place to start. Ignorance is all around us. It’s up to us to help change this feeling (like the one that Carla has).

  9. Thank your for your efforts on campus to end this completely disrespectful word, used numerously in a negative connotation. I have recently had conversations with other students on campus encouraging them to end the use of the “R” word. Through this pledge, more individuals will become aware of the need to be more respectful and accepting of others. I am thrilled to be a part of this pledge! This cause resonates especially as some of my friends’ siblings have down snydrome. Thank you for supporting this cause. Please spread the word to end this term and encourage acceptance for all humans.

  10. I see some difference of understanding among people with different educational background. To me being educated means you have to understand the issue and convey to others your thoughts and a civilized manner. I do believe that individuals with mental/physical disabilities are No different from you and I.

    Further, as all of us know the government has banned the “n”word and it is illegal to use it in public and even in private. Why doesn’t the government step in and ban the “R” word? It is about time the government be an “Equal Opportunity Banner” of words with negative connotation. 

  11. Thank you sooo much for helping in this movement to stop the negativity of the r-word. My daughter has down syndrome and we both appreciate your time and effort…Greetings from Denver and Thanks again for your hard work.

  12. Hello
    My name is Trent Wiswell I am one of them guys that run around saying this is R*t*r*** an All I want to say is I am sorry I never say it thinking about the people I am talking about or who it could offend . So after reading all this I have to say I am sorry for being the CHILD . I support the fact that you are doing this and I am proud to see some one standing up to some one like me . We are all physically and mentally equal,I usually approach that person using the “N” work to discribe black persons So why should I use the R word like a child .
    I am truly SORRY for every one I have offend in the past but I will fix my childish wording .
    And think before I say something next time . I hope who ever reads this will except my apology for what I have said before reading all this …. Thank you and good luck everyone ..

  13. ‘The government has banned the “n”word and it is illegal to use it in public and even in private’
    Can someone confirm this please?

  14. A few things: first of all, I have no campaign to promote further use of the word “retarded” or any such thing. I simply feel – through years of experience in special education fields – that avoiding a word often causes avoidance of an issue. And, Shanen and others, I am far from ignorant on this matter. Three of my siblings have severe disabilities, both mental and physical. I have worked at group homes and at summer camps for the disabled, as well as as a paraprofessional in several special we classrooms. I know what I am talking about, on a much more solid and genuine level than, I would assume, many of you.
    Finally, please remember that the n-word was always a relatively offensive racist term. “Retarded”, on the other hand, only very recently fell out of P. C. vogue. The word was used in books, magazines, and the media, as well as by both educators and families of those affected with mental disabilities. It is not a “bad word”. We’re just scared of it.
    And what, may I ask, do you all propose that we use in place of the word “retarded”?

  15. Well done to anyone, anywhere, who wants to help and support those less able to do so themselves. Its as simple as that I believe. My son, Tom, is 11 and he has Downs Syndrome. I dont think he would know what the word Retard means but if said to him in a derrogatory manner over & over, I am sure he would soon take offence. Is their a positive or communal garden use for this word?, I cant think of one, its insensitive and disrespectful and should have no place in a decent, respectful society. If you choose to use the word, what kind of person are you? Its the same old thing, treat others as you expect to be treated and life will be a better, happier place for all. Keep up the good work and thank you. I hope one day, Tom can stand up in the public eye and be an advocate himself to enable people to understand people with DS and accept them as human beings, slightly different from the majority on the outside maybe but no different in their feelings and their zest for life. Tom is an amazing person, loved by all who meet him and has definately made more of an impression on people in his 11 years than I, my husband or my daughters have made in our life times, now thats what I call an achievement!
    Go Tom! X

  16. Carla I think you’re really missing the point. The pledge states that one will end the *derogatory use of the word in their everyday speech.*

  17. I understand that. I just would like to know how you all imagine that will help. I visited the website; it doesn’t even mention the actual word. It just refers to “the r-word”. How is that level of fear and/or political correctness helping anybody?

  18. It is so awesome to see people doing these big movements to end the word. I have two younger brothers who have autism and I could never imagine referring to them as being “retarded” or calling them “retards” because they aren’t. They are people, just like everyone else, and they do not deserve to be labeled by their disability. When someone sees one of my brothers, I want them to know their name and other amazing qualities about them that the average person doesn’t get to see. Not using the R-word isn’t avoiding the fact that they have a disability – It’s having enough respect to see them as equals. Just because they don’t learn as fast as the “typical person” does not mean they deserve to have a label attached to them.

    And, you don’t need to have a word to replace the R-word. It is more common now that someone be diagnosed as having an intellectual disability, not mental retardation. Even then, those who are diagnosed with an intellectual disability don’t deserve to be labeled as being “intellectually disabled”. Labels are for soup cans, not for people.

  19. Good work everyone!! I hope these efforts will allow us to retard the use of this terrible word!!

  20. I have worked in the field of intellectual disabilities for 28 years in OKlahoma. I remember a conference I attended many years ago. The speaker said ” Individuals do not have to prove their competency to be included and respected in their own life” No matter what, individuals with all levels of intellectual disabilities inherently know whether they are receiving respect. All individuals, want most to make a difference in your life, contribute back…even if it is a smile that makes your day. My children, ages 16, 17, 21, 22 were raised without the “R” word and they teach their high school and college classmates by their own example and by educating with compassion.

  21. First of all, I want to thank Kari Jo and John for what they are doing. The r-word is a very hurtful word. My husband who has a brain injury of almost 7 years now has had the r-word thrown at him a few times since his accident. You can not always just look at a person and determine if they do or do not have a disability. By just looking at my husband you would not even know that he has a disability but once you start to carry on a conversation with him you would pick up on it. So what I am saying is that this word needs to be stopped !!!!! I know Kari Jo and her brother Zack as well as their whole family. This family has helped me through some tuff times and I am in total support of what Kari Jo and John are doing. So lets all stop and think before we let words out of our mouth that can be hurtful to or offend others. Have compassion and help others !!!!!!

  22. What about the words lame and dumb? They don’t have the derogatory effect because it’s definition is ambiguous. I say “That’s lame” not because it’s defamatory towards people with impaired body parts, rather to describe a subject that is lacking needful or desirable substance. I believe our definition of these words have evolved into its contemporary use because it was used so frequently that it became common place and removed any derogatory connotation.

    So, I suggest that rather than eliminating the use of the r-word, why don’t we campaign to use it more in order to remove it’s derogatory meaning. Instead, by creating this taboo we are extrapolating the effect for those who actually want to use this word for harm.

  23. Michael- Lame is an ableist term, and many people with disabilities (and their allies) actually do find it quite offensive.

  24. Clarification on this issue is need.

    Retarded – (Adjective) – less advanced in mental, physical, or social development than is usual for one’s age.
    Retard – (Verb) – delay or hold back in terms of progress, development, or accomplishment.
    Retard- (Noun) – a mentally handicapped person, usually used in an offensive manner.

    Two of these words have nothing to do with those with mental disabilities. To argue against their use (on the grounds that it offends those with disabilities) only demonstrates your own lack of understanding of the terms or inability to interpret contexts.

    However, if you argue against the third use of the word… actually I still disagree. The fact that a single word offends someone (or many people for that matter) is not sufficient to justify its elimination from the language. If you have another argument why we should not use the word ‘Retard’ (Noun), I’d love to hear it.

  25. I agree that there is nothing inherently wrong with the word “retard,” but I also know from a lot of personal experience that many people in my cohort (college age and younger) have given it a new and very negative meaning. Even though this new definition is not found in any dictionary, it is perhaps more widely known to the youth of our culture than the legitimate definition. I have heard people called retards for doing anything that makes them seem less intelligent, suave or “cool.” It is very clearly an insult to call someone a retard, and everyone in my peer group is aware of the negative connotations we have given the word. I cannot speak for the larger movement, but I do believe that this is good campaign on the St. Thomas campus. Regardless of the origin of the word or its professional uses, there are students here that have chosen to redefine the word “retard” as an insult. I hope that this movement here at UST will get at least some people to reconsider the way they speak to others and be more respectful with their language.

  26. Paul and Carla, while I understand clearly each of your respective points I feel confident in saying that they have no place in this discourse. Paul, your reliance on semantics amounts to very little in the face of the social argument being brought against you. In fact, your behavior stands in stark contrast to the rationale of the argument you present. For example, I know you do not utilize the term “Negro” in describing black people. The word means black in Spanish, and is derived from the Latin ‘niger’. A similar case can be made for the N-word. I am forced to ask, so what? The point being made here is that our language and its usage reflect on us as a society. I’d like to believe we can communicate in such a way that the r-word is relegated to the archaic lexicon with Negro, Oriental, Indian (as opposed to Native-American), etc.
    Furthermore, I am convinced that the use of this word is strictly for the stigma attached to it. It is edgy and offensive and that is why people use it. Whatever shallow victory that grants anyone is outweighed by the social environment created for those with disabilities. You can speak about the impossibility of a word being bad, and I’ll agree with you. I’m not addressing the word though, I’m addressing your use and condoning of it.

  27. Kari Jo- YOU are always making a difference! I printed this to show my kids…who have a tendency to use this word which makes me very angry! I want them to see how the “word” affects other people and not just “their mom”! Thanks for making a difference! Proud of you as usual!

  28. This whole issue is analogous to environment-polluting celebrities advocating for the decrease of peoples’ carbon footprints. It sounds like a good idea, sure, but do you really have any place to blindly support a cause you actually know very little about? The majority of commenters on this article have little to no experience with the disabled. Therefore, you don’t know the issues involved simply in the language of special ed and related fields.
    That being said, this entire issue stems not primarily from a desire for respect for the disabled, but out of fear and a need to be politically correct. Fear of a word only increases fear of the thing itself, and this ridiculous linguistic prescriptivism will serve to do just that.
    And finally: “ableist” language? Ms. Pogryn, you, and those like-minded, need to come to the understanding that certain people – MOST people – are blessed with superior physical and intellectual abilities than some. We are obligated to care for and respect these few, but we’re not doing them any favors by catering to what we call their wishes.

  29. I am very glad to see that St. Thomas students are doing something to spread awareness. It makes me proud to be a Tommie! Great Job guys!

  30. Carla- This isn’t about pretending that every person has the exact same abilities or characteristics. This is about recognizing that everyone, regardless of their differences, all share equally in humanity and deserve respect and dignity. This is about not using terms that are disparaging towards certain groups. This is about refusing to use terms that refer to particular groups of people as synonyms for negative adjectives, because to do so disparages the groups of people those terms refer to.

  31. Carla, you seem to be deviating from your original argument. According to your analogy, committing good acts with improper motivations is bad? This understanding is flawed as you do not make a statement on whether or not reducing one’s carbon footprint is right or wrong. It seems your biggest problem with this campaign is your own perception of why it started. You do not focus on whether or not the word should be considered acceptable when referring to an individual. Now, if you believe those in support of the campaign are afraid of the the r-word and are seeking its disuse in an effort to conquer it or something you are simply wrong. The word has lost what little redeeming value it once held. While word “only very recently fell out of P. C. vogue” the fact remains it has fallen. Why resuscitate it?

    I agree with you that avoiding an issue by trying to make it a non-issue is counter-productive. However, this would only make sense if this campaign attempted to remove all language regarding a person’s mental or physical capabilities. This is not the case. Those distinctions can still be made (if you so choose) it is only asked that in doing so you are cognizant of your language. You asked earlier for an alternative. Why not just name the disability?

  32. I don’t hold that this particular movement on campus at this particular time is necessarily wrong or foolish in itself. However, I know what comes from these kinds of things, and the only resulting outcome is to make those without disabilities feel better about themselves and “making a difference”.

    Are any of you familiar with People-First Language? It’s a form of language prescriptivism that, when discussing those with disabilities, refers to the person first and his/her disability second, and using “has” rather than “is”, i.e. “this boy has autism” rather than “this boy is autistic”. This idea has progressed to the point of ridiculousness, referring to handicapped parking as “blue-line parking” and non-verbal children as “children who communicate with their eyes”. Think about that for a second, and then think how easily not using the dreaded r-word slips into that sort of foolishness.

    And, Mr. Brakefield, I completely agree with your proposal that we “just name the disability”. But as you can see, we’re too brainwashed, or scared, or P.C., or SOMETHING, to even do that.

  33. I’m all for treating everyone with the decency that they deserve. And yes, I feel that people with challenges offer no less value to the world than anyone else.

    However, I do think that Michael M. makes a valid point. By outlawing the use of this world, we are essentially sharpening the knife and enabling a stronger impact when the word is actually used in a derogatory manner.

    What the solution is? I don’t know… But I do know that the people who would use this world in a negative way will continue to use it, regardless of this campaign. And because of this campaign we are enabling them to do so more effectively.

  34. Carla- I’m a bit confused as to why you think that we’re opposed to naming disabilities. The first paragraph of the article above does just that.

  35. Mr. Bower, I agree.

    Ms.Pogryn, if you’ll read my last comment, you’ll see my point about being afraid to even name a disability in any useful way.

  36. Carla, I understood that point, what I was confused about is if you think that’s what going on here in not wanting to use the r-word (and if so, why you think that since there’s evidence to the contrary in the article), and if not, then I’m confused as to who you’re talking about.

  37. Kari Jo, from the day you were born, we knew you were special! After your brother was born, we knew you were even more special! The things you’ve been through, wrote about, experienced, etc, has made you into the fabulous woman that you are today! You’re an inspiration to our whole family, as well as a huge idol for your brother! The wonderful experiences we’ve had as a family the past (almost) 19 years has been incredible, and more than anyone could ever ask for! You are the best big sister Zach was blessed with, and you guys have been a great example to everyone that has ever had the chance to meet your family!! I’m so proud of what you have accomplished throughout your life, and wish you nothing but the best on this campaign!! Keep your head up, and know that the people who’ve posted negativly, have other issues in their lives, not allowing them to see the good in this!! Love you!!

  38. As a band director the musical terms ritard and ritardando are found often. When needing to improve the groups performance on slowing down together where the music indicates to ritard I must use a statement like “lets work on this ritard before measure 10”. If I do not take the time to talk with the class about not joking about the musical word ritard and the insulting word retard, students will snicker and call someone in the class a retard. I agree, it is a word that needs to go away. I try to explain to my bands that the students sitting around you may have a sibling, or cousin that may be handicapped. The word retarded may really bother them, but they will probably not say anything to you. What your doing is a great idea.

  39. Kari Jo. As the mother of an exceptional daughter with Down Syndrome I applaud you!! I have joined your crusade against that ugly word used by ignorant people. I have felt that punch in the stomach many times in the last 50 years. It HURTS. Makes you sick. My daughter, Penny, like your brother, Zack, has learned to say….”Well..phooey on you.” She keeps on keeping on…and I would not trade her for any other daughter. I love her and am so proud of her. I feel the same as any other mother of any other beautiful, talented, successful daughter. Penny does not back off or back down. She has learned …in the school of hard knocks…that she is as good as the best and better than the rest. She doesn’t even think about it anymore..she just knows deep in her soul. She’s gentle and kind and loves to work with and help people…but she is one tough little cookie.

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