Three teen leaders recently turned a summer Sunday in Toronto into an opportunity for public advocacy, raising awareness on the importance of changing our language—specifically the slurred use of the word retarded.
“Unfortunately, people still use the word frequently,” Hannah Tessel, 18, of Riverdale, informed. Hannah, an active member of the Yachad Youth Leadership Council based in New York, was visiting friend Lala Schwartz, 18, whom she met on Yachad’s Yad B’Yad summer program in 2012.
Yachad/the National Jewish Council for Disabilities (NJCD), the flagship agency of the Orthodox Union, provides unique social, educational and recreational programs for individuals with learning, developmental and physical disabilities. Its goal is to promote their inclusion in the life of the Jewish community.
“For a long time, I wanted to see how others would react to someone advocating with the only intention to eradicate the “R” word,” said Hannah. Joined by friend Yakira Begun, 18, the three young women decided not to wait for a specific campaign or event to try to make a difference. “We’re just three girls who wanted to share our passion.”
Within a local public square and shopping mall, “We approached whoever we could, and said ‘Hi, how are you? We want to end the inappropriate use of the ‘R’ word,’” described Hannah. “Unfortunately, we had to say the word retarded to garner attention.”
The reactions varied greatly, from those of the impression that “we got rid of that word” and that it was archaic, youth who refused to sign, and appreciative friends and family who could relate. “We noticed that it’s not the older crowd who uses the word—more so youth, so we tried to target the kids,” noted Lala.
Hannah added, “Someone asked if they could give us money and we said no because we didn’t want people to think our intention was for reward. We didn’t associate ourselves with any organization. We simply wanted to work towards eradicating the word and it took many people by surprise.”
Collecting signatures also wasn’t a goal or a competition for the girls, who noted some individuals were willing to sign their poster in support. The teens replied that signatures do not equal happiness for them and engaged in conversation about the bigger picture.
During one of multiple positive encounters, the girls met a man, about 20 years old, who otherwise seemed to be self-entertained, dribbling a ball. “He said to us, ‘why would someone use that word?’ and described a close friend of his who works as a social worker, making him [the man at the mall] sensitive to the word,” shared Lala. “He told us that he got goose bumps from what we were doing and encouraged us to keep it up. He was really touched.”
In 2013, the Los Angeles chapter of Yachad created a video called “Spread the Word to End the Word” in honor of North American Inclusion Month (NAIM). NAIM is an initiative of Yachad every February, with expanded programming to develop awareness and sensitivity of what it means for those who live with disabilities, and how to include them within the broad Jewish community.
Inspired by Hannah, Lala and Yakira, NAIM coordinators hope to use the passion and action as a model to raise awareness and sensitivity levels.