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Jennifer Johnson, Forum News Service, Published March 06 2013

Grand Forks schools fight against slur on intellectually disabled

GRAND FORKS - Grand Forks Red River High School graduate Erin Baumann, 31, stood before hundreds of Valley Middle School students Tuesday and told them what happens when the word “retard” is used.

“Even if they are teasing, it makes fun of people with intellectual disabilities like me,” said Baumann, who has Down syndrome. “Anyone with an intellectual disability deserves to be treated as a human being. It doesn’t matter if you have intellectual disability or not, all children are important.”

After she finished, she received a standing ovation.

Baumann, a former North Dakota Special Olympics female athlete of the year, had given one of several speeches celebrating an international campaign called “Spread the Word to End the Word.”

Spread the Word

The campaign, supported in part by Special Olympics and one that started five years ago in Grand Forks, aims to eliminate a word that’s “pretty insulting and pretty hurtful to families and students,” said Tori Johnson, director of special education for the district.

“Most students with disabilities attend public schools,” she said. “They are included. They are a member of the school community and they deserve to be treated with respect.”

Although the primary awareness day is today, each school will hold events throughout this week.

Several assemblies will be held and staff and students will engage in theme days, such as wearing mismatched clothing to indicate the “r-word doesn’t match who people are,” said Tracy Landis, special education resident teacher at Lake Agassiz Elementary School. Students respond more when they see their teachers get involved, she said.

“We’re teaching it as an example,” she said. “I think the more they understand it, the more they’re not willing to use the r-word.”

Beyond campaign

Landis and Johnson said the campaign extends beyond promoting tolerance — it helps kids become advocates for other kids who need help. Although Landis has never seen a developmentally disabled student bullied, the campaign encourages kids to speak up when they witness adverse behavior, she said.

The week also gives students with intellectual disabilities a chance to highlight their skills and show others they’re just like everyone else, said Johnson.

Tom Mikkelson, another Red River graduate and Special Olympics athlete, will also speak to students. Mikkelson competed in the Special Olympics World Games in South Korea in January and won a gold medal.

During her speech, Baumann drove home that people with intellectual disabilities are still people. She works part-time herself, participates in seven sports and she isn’t afraid of public speaking — she’s spoken in front of more than 2,000 people in the last two years.

“People with intellectual disabilities like to have fun and we have feelings like everybody else,” she told the audience. “You need to know them before you can judge them.”