Most people sometimes don’t realize the power of their words, especially when it comes to terms that define people with disabilities, which is why one student at Hopewell Valley’s Central High School (CHS) spearheaded a campaign to raise awareness.
Laura Haney, a 15-year-old freshman at Hopewell Valley CHS, along with a group of her friends and fellow freshmen – Callie Considine, Rachel Somonski, Francesca LoVerde, Sara Ali and Sophie Burnham-Lemaire – are spreading awareness to help prevent people from using disparaging words that begin with the letter “R” that can hurt people with disabilities as apart of the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities (NJCDD) campaign, R-Word.
The overall goal of the R-Word campaign is to raise awareness to members of communities and media around the state that the two words mentioned above are both hurtful to people with disabilities and their families, and to encourage the public to remove these words from people’s everyday vocabulary.
The drive behind Haney’s efforts to spread knowledge and understanding about this cause is her 19 year-old brother, Brian, who has Down Syndrome.
“For a really long time, I’ve been against people using that word, and I just decided to do something about it,” she said. “Most people understand that there are people with disabilities, but I honestly don’t think people put two and two together. What we’re trying to do is raise awareness that it actually does hurt real people when you say it because I don’t think people really understand that.”
Haney originally began thinking about this cause two years ago. When she was in seventh grade, she rallied the other girls to make t-shirts with Brian’s picture on them that said, “If you wouldn’t say it to him, don’t say it at all.”
LoVerde explained how putting Brian’s picture on the t-shirt really helped the cause, although it was nerve-wracking to wear them to school at first.
“The first time we wore the t-shirt with Brian on it, I was kind of shy about it because I didn’t know how people we’re going to react,” she said. “But then once people started reacting positively, we were more proud to wear the shirt.”
“It’s also good because we all had each other’s backs,” Somonski said.
Haney’s mother, Cynthia, who is an administrative assistant for the Middle School at Stuart Day Country School in Princeton, helped her start the cause and constantly offers her and the girls loads of encouragement and support.
“The negative connotation this word implies hits particularly close to home for Laura and her friends,” she said. “Her brother, who is non-verbal, cannot speak up for himself, and Laura has made it her mission to speak up for him and others like him.”
After the girls made the t-shirts in seventh grade, they all chose one day out of each month to wear them, which gained considerable recognition – both positive and negative – from other students and teachers.
Although some students sought to ridicule their cause because of immaturity or misunderstanding, they didn’t stop what they were doing and were persistent with their cause, which has brought them to the successful place that they’re at today.
The girls set up a booth at this year’s Pennington Day on May 19, the first time they’ve raised “mass awareness,” to encourage people to sign the R-Word campaign pledge, which they obtained from the NJCDD.
“It was a pledge to not use the word and to inform people who use it not to use it,” Somonski said. “Once we ran out of the cards, we had people sign the poster.”
Somonski, along with the other girls, all said they were surprised that they ran out of 300 cards they received from the NJCDD.
“Personally, when I went, I wasn’t sure how people were going to react,” LoVerde said. “I certainly didn’t expect that much of a reaction, and I didn’t think we’d run out of that many cards.”
After they ran out of cards, they had almost the same number of people who signed the pledge cards sign the banner that the Special Olympics supplied for them, which read, “I Pledge to Show Respect: Spread the Word to End the Word.” “Spread the Word to End the Word” is the Special Olympics’ national campaign to raise awareness and stop the use of the “R” word, much alike the NJCDD.
Aside from signing the pledge, the girls also distributed buttons, pamphlets, bumper stickers, and bracelets. They explained how people even came up to them asking where they could purchase the t-shirts they were wearing, but since the girls didn’t expect nearly as much of a response as they received, they didn’t order any to sell or distribute.
Considine recommended that they have the t-shirts available at next year’s Pennington Day, which all of the girls agreed with and are planning to do.
Brian doesn’t really understand the girls’ cause, but he was happily present at their booth for part of the day, helping put a face to the cause.
“Before Pennington Day, it wasn’t really that big of a thing. Pennington Day was what really opened it up to the public and helped spread the word about it,” LoVerde said.
All of the girls agreed that it was nice to see how much of a difference they made at Pennington Day, as they saw clusters of people wearing the buttons they gave out, and since people were so receptive and supportive of their cause.
Moving forward, they’re hoping to start a club at Hopewell Valley CHS next year when they’re sophomores.
“At Pennington Day, some students asked us if it was a club and said they would join it when it becomes a club,” LoVerde said.
“We also want to hang the banner somewhere to show how many people are a part of it already,” Haney said.
And because all of the girls have been such adamant supporters of this cause, it’s as if their ears are more alert to the derogatory terms they’re trying to discourage people from saying.
“We kind of have a thing now that when you’re having a conversation with someone else and you overhear another conversation with someone saying it, you’re like, ‘Whoa,’” Somonski said.
“It kind of stands out when you hear it,” Haney said. “But, when certain people start to learn about it, I think that they start to understand and realize they’re hurting someone’s feelings, and stop saying it,” Haney said.
Currently, the girls are working on new designs for their t-shirts since their seventh-grade ones are too small, and also ones to sell to people who want to join the cause. They are also searching for a local cause so they have an organization their future club’s events and proceeds can support.
“We wanted to donate money to families who need to send their kids to special kids, but can’t afford it,” Haney said. “Where my brother goes to school is really, really expensive, but the school district pays for it. But, it doesn’t always work out that way.”
For now, all that the girls can do is try their best to talk to people, supply alternative words to substitute for the R-word, and educate them on how it affects people who are linked to people with disabilities, like Haney.
“We’re going to try and get this bigger and bigger until more people know about it, especially in the school,” Haney said.
It’s a big problem here,” Considine said.
To sign the R-Word pledge or find out more about the campaign, visit www.njcdd.org/projects/2012-04-23-13-46-37/r-word.