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Speaking out to end the 'r-word'

Laura Busch
Northern News Services
Published Friday, December 9, 2011

"You're, like, so retarded."

How much harm can a statement like this really make? A lot, if you ask a dedicated group of St. Patrick High School students working to eradicate the "r-word" from their school.

NNSL photo/graphic

Members of St. Patrick High School's Irish Inclusion group Nara Dapilos, back row left, Mischelle Remigio, Alannis McKee; and Pippa Kennedy, front row left, Kleinberg Fernandez, Keegen Payne and Alysson McKee made presentations to staff and faculty Thursday and Friday to "stop the R-word." - Laura Busch/NNSL photo

Unfortunately, the students say, they're campaign is not being taken seriously by some students and even some teaching staff.

"Our goal is to try to get students to stop using the 'r-word' - i.e retard - because it is so prevalent in society. Not only amongst students, but staff as well," said Barb de Bastiani, a student support counsellor at St. Patrick High School and one of the staff advisers for the group.

The Irish Inclusion is a group of about 20 students. The idea is to help make everyone in the student body feel included in the school. Last Thursday and Friday, seven members of the group held a series of presentations for faculty and fellow students on the derogatory term and why it shouldn't be said.

"Today was about the r-word and we're representing students with intellectual disabilities, but we also represent the kids who don't really have as many friends as everyone and trying to make everyone feel included," said Pippa Kennedy, a Grade 11 student and one of the founding members of the group.

The group received some push-back from other students during their presentation, which was expected. What wasn't as expected was the negative reaction they received from some of their teachers.

"There was some teachers who were laughing and stuff. They were really not taking it seriously," said Alannis McKee, a Grade 10 student who brought forward the idea of presenting to the school about using the r-word. "I don't want to make it seem like all the teachers were sitting there throwing tomatoes at us - I'm just saying that when you're presenting, you do notice the black sheep. Like, you don't really notice all the people that are taking it seriously, but you notice the three people who aren't and that's what you focus on."

"I'm not going to say a name, but I heard Pippa ask a teacher to sign the pledge and he said 'no,'" said McKee.

"And then he just walked away," Kennedy interjected "Your teachers ... they should be a good influence on you, but they can also be bad influences on you, too."

As far as the harm using the word can have, Lynn Elkin, executive director of the Yellowknife Association for Community Living, explained it like this:

"You're not using that word to say, 'oh, you're really cool,' you're using that word in a way that ties it to the associations that were with that word although you may not be doing it to be hurtful," she said. "And to families and individuals who have experienced from a different perspective, it is hurtful to have that word used."

For Alannis and her twin sister Alysson, use of the derogatory term hits home. Their younger brother has autism, and so they find it particularly painful to hear their classmates throwing around the term as a joke. In fact, when asked how many of them didn't have personal stories involving people who had intellectual disabilities, none of the seven presenters raised their hand.

"We're trying to be a first change," said McKee. "Some people aren't going to get on board, just like other things in history when people didn't get on board at first, but it will come."

The student group has realistic expectations as to what their presentations might accomplish among the student body.

"We know we can't change the entire world and we can't change everybody in our school, maybe we can't even change half the population of our school," said Kleinberg Fernandez, Grade 10. "The best we can do is let people know and give them the information."

These students are not expecting that members of their community will suddenly be politically correct in everything they say and do, but they are hoping by holding these presentations - and taking a certain amount of grief for it - they have made some members of their audience think about the repercussions of the words they use.

"It is about the word 'retard,' but it's not," said Alannis. "We're not expecting people to walk out the door and not say another mean thing again in their whole lives, but we are expecting people to just think about the responsibility they have."

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