March 5, 2014 is international “Spread the Word to End the Word” awareness day. The word being ‘retarded’ and any forms or derivations (including adding the suffix –tard). For those of us living in Israel, and perhaps sadly those in America where the movement originated, the day was not even a blip on our radar. I am a teacher in a school. Day in, day out, the word “mefager,” retard or retarded in Hebrew, is all around me. Sadly, it’s not just the students. The word abounds in the teachers’ room at recess. I tried to tell my fellow staff members not to say that word. I tried to explain that it hurts me, personally, as the mother of a developmentally handicapped child. I was told that I do not understand the nuances of the Hebrew language. I put up a Hebrew sign, the equivalent of the famous sign that says something like: You can say stupid, messed-up, crazy etc., why choose retarded? Someone took it down. So, instead of talking to the staff about the day and suggesting they speak to the kids about it, I spoke to one mature class about it. It is not new for them that I do not allow the word “mefager” in my classroom. I told the students about the movement and its goals. I explained to them the reasoning behind it.
Using a certain ethnicity I gave an example of something offensive one might say. The same reasoning for not using the R words applies in the example I gave. The kids were appalled. “I would never say something like that.” “So why would you say the word ‘mefager’?” I asked, “It’s the same thing!” That did not penetrate. Finally, I told them about a particular student in the school, who at the beginning of the year was making fun of kids by calling them autistic. That behavior was dealt with right away, ironically. I asked them if they would do something like that. “Never,” was the reply. “So why use mefager? Isn’t it the same?” I naively asked. Apparently not. One boy explained it best: “mefager is something we say. It’s not meant as an insult to retarded people, but to the person we are talking to. Calling someone autistic is just not something we do.” I left disheartened.
Friends, this is a day of hope for people around the world, people who care about creating an open society where people with disabilities are not just accepted, but respected. In Israel the special needs population is not hidden away. They have jobs, apartments and social lives. And yet, children and adults alike, teachers and educators even, toss around the R word as if it’s nothing. As this day comes to a close I can’t help but wonder: this movement is spreading around the world; isn’t it time it came to Israel?
Please join me in erasing this word from our vocabulary, except for the circumstances it was originally intended for. Spread the word to end the word.