Kyle Visser’s speech was slow, but his words sounded loud and clear throughout the Valor Christian High School gymnasium.
“When someone calls me ‘retard,’ it really hurts,” said the 19-year-old Special Olympian. “It can leave me feeling angry and depressed. (It’s) a hurtful word for people with disabilities. We have the same desires and emotions as normal people.”
Visser, an Aurora resident, spoke to Valor students at a March 8 all-school assembly urging students to help eradicate the ‘R’ word. “Spread the word to end the word” is a Special Olympics campaign hundreds of Valor students joined by signing pledge sheets after the assembly.
“Pledge not to use the word,” Valor student Cooper Youngs said, “not only that but to hold other people accountable.
“Really, this campaign is all about respect. People with intellectual disabilities aren’t any different than we are.”
Youngs founded the Valor Special Olympics Club, through which students can coach and volunteer for the athletic competitions.
Youngs said he’s richer for his involvement with Special Olympics. He started volunteering at his father’s urging, but did so begrudgingly.
“Three and a half years later, it totally changed my life,” he told his fellow students.
Ten-year-old Aurora resident Jake Whitney, who has Down syndrome, also addressed the students. He sat cross-legged on a stool and described the sports he loves to play. Whitney then led them in a rousing dance, immediately endearing himself to them.
“He’s so cute!” several teenage girls whispered as Whitney grinned and waved at his audience.
That response is common, his mother said.
“He’s always the center of attention,” Casey Whitney said. “I just think we’re so lucky that he was born in this time where he’s accepted. There’s been one kid in his 10 years that’s ever said anything (negative).”
The R-word campaign asks people to stop using the word “as a starting point toward creating more accepting attitudes and communities for all people,” according to a website dedicated to the effort. For more information or to take the pledge, visit www.r-word.org.