With one comment, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has made quite a fumble, well before the first play of this Sunday’s Super Bowl this Sunday. In response to a recent question from a Denver Post columnist about whether cold-weather cities should host the Super Bowl, Flacco used the r-word:
“Yeah, I think it’s retarded. I guess I shouldn’t say that [word]. I think it’s stupid. If you want to have a Super Bowl, put a retractable dome on your stadium, then you can get one. Other than that, I don’t really like the idea. I don’t think it would suit us badly. I think we would react very well to it and would be glad to play anybody in that kind of weather. I can’t see that really being a good idea.”
As swiftly as he had made his remark, Flacco said he regretted it:
“It was a bad choice of words. I have a great relationship with Special Olympics back in Baltimore and have had one for many years. I didn’t mean to offend anybody but I definitely apologize for that.”
The Special Olympics has been conducting a widely publicized national campaign against the use of the r-word and, as the Baltimore Sun notes, Flacco himself has co-chaired Special Olympics Maryland‘s annual Polar Bear Plunge.
Flacco’s saying the “r-word” may have been unintentional, but shows how it has become entwined in people’s vocabulary even when they think they’re “in the know” about individuals with disabilities. His use of the word is a reminder about how entrenched the use of the r-word has become in our culture — and it’s a great impetus to start a serious discussion.
Maryland resident John Boit, whose sister has Down Syndrome and who had worn a Flacco jersey till now, says the use of the “r-word” “amounts to hate speech.” That may sound like an over-reaction, but it is not when you consider the history of the word and other terms that have been used to describe those with intellectual disabilities.
Back in the 1950s, using the term “mentally retarded” was considered progress. Before then, those with intellectual disabilities were said to be “morons,” “imbeciles,” “cretins,” “idiots” and “feeble-minded.” Our understanding of all that individuals with intellectual and other disabilities can do has since grown and evolved. The Special Olympics’ “end the use of the r-word” campaign is one result of this.
While Special Olympics Maryland has been critical of Flacco’s comment – a spokeswoman, Linda Ellingsworth, says that Flacco “kind of made a slip” — the organization says it still supports him. Indeed, Ellingsworth says they plan to use the incident as an “opportunity to further educate people on the usage of the word.”
It was only two years ago that the state of Arizona officially removed the words “retardation” and “crippled” from its statutes. Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc, says that he is hopeful about how the incident can raise awareness about how casually people use the r-word, without realizing how hurtful it is. As he says in Disability Scoop, ”after Super Bowl XLVII is in the history books…. Flacco [could be a participant] in the national dialogue about why this word is offensive to people with disabilities and what fans can do to help us remove the word from our society.”
After he plays in Sunday’s Super Bowl game, let’s encourage Flacco to take part in such a dialogue and spread the word about how uncool it is to use the r-word!
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