What do they call you?

Post submitted by Erahm Christopher, an award-winning filmmaker and co-creator of TEEN TRUTH. Through TEEN TRUTH LIVE, Erahm speaks to middle school, high school, and adult audiences across North America. His presentations have motivated state legislation, improved school climates, and changed people’s lives.

Over the years I have been called many names.  “Air-Ram,” “Air-rum,” and “Effram” are a just few creative interpretations of my given name, Erahm, pronounced like “Erin” but with “m” at the end. I don’t fault people for their attempts at proper pronunciation, but I make sure to correct them if they don’t get it right because I want people to know who I really am.

We’re all called names that have nothing to do with who we are. And we are all guilty of doing the same to others. Name-calling is one of the most common forms of bullying that I see when I’m on the road with TEEN TRUTH. Growing up I certainly was called many names – sometimes out of playfulness but often out of malice. I still see other students slammed with hurtful words every day when I step on a school campus.

In my opinion the sum of hateful words thrown around school campuses everywhere has increased considerably. I see a lot of people blame TV shows and films that celebrate putting down friends or strangers, but that’s never been something that concerned me as much as the fact that teens too often fail to realize the sheer power of their words. We can place blame all we like for the trend, but it’s up to each one of us to take responsibility for what comes out of our mouths. That’s why we recently partnered with Special Olympics to help end the use of the “r-word” (retard).

During my work developing our new TEEN TRUTH LIVE: PROJECT UNIFY experience, I’ve had the pleasure of working with and developing friendships with several Special Olympic athletes and partners. I have seen these courageous individuals step in front of hundreds of youth to explain first-hand how hurtful the “r-word” is to them. I will admit that I have used the “r-word” in the past, but after working with my new friends and hearing how they feel, I eliminated it from my vocabulary (unless I am describing our partnership in a presentation).

I believe that my experience with my new friends at Special Olympics helped me to THINK DIFFERENTLY about the words I choose and the impact they have on others. Now when I hear the “r-word” I think about my friends Sam, Alyssa, Danielle and Colin who have truly been scarred by this hurtful word.

We all have a right to speak our minds. I believe firmly in freedom of speech and our collective right to use our VOICES to express our TRUTHS. But I also believe that in our quest to share what we hold inside, we must choose our words carefully.

I challenge you to think about whether or not you are using words that correctly describe who people really are. Are your words authentic? Do they speak the TRUTH? Or do they just feed into hurtful stereotypes and other forms of common bullying?

Sadly, the common expression, “sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you” does not apply anymore. Words like “f*g,” “id*ot,” “b*tch,” and “r*tard” can leave a scar on someone’s spirit that will last far longer than a physical mark caused by a stick or stone.

I challenge you to think about the power of your words.

Do they help or hurt? Would you want them thrown at you? If the answer is “no” then they’re probably words you shouldn’t use.



The Power of Project UNIFY

I recently attended a Project UNIFY Rally for Special Olympics New Jersey and Jersey City Public Schools. It was an energetic and wonderful atmosphere at the Yanitelli Center at St. Peter’s College. 40 schools were present and each was represented by 39 students. Each school put on a performance about respect and accepting all abilities. The performances that stood out to me – and really helped to energize the crowd – were done by Rafael de J. Cordero, P.S. #37, Nicolous Copernicus School, P.S. #25, Dr. Michael Conti, P.S. #5, Martin Center of Arts, M.S. #41, Anthony J. Infante, and P.S. #31.

The performance by P.S. #37 was a song about respecting people of all abilities and sevenstudents had letters that spelled R-E-S-P-E-C-T. The performance by P.S. #25 was a song about being amazing just the way you are. The students from P.S. #5 dressed nicely and used body language in their performance. The students from M.S. #41 used the following slogan, “You respect me, I respect you … we are all beautiful people!” P.S. #31 performed the song, When you wish upon a star and focused on the acceptance of all abilities.

Dr. Michael Fowlin gave an entertaining performance that had a serious message for everyone in the audience about people with different abilities.  The mere feeling of energy and noise from the crowd filled you with excitement. It was a celebration of all abilitieswithin Jersey City Public Schools.

While I didn’t take any video, there was a great video blog done by My Autism Voice that shares some of the amazing performance from the Jersey City Schools Project UNIFY Rally:

If all state programs did an event like this, their school communities could benefit greatly – impacting not only on the students but entire school communities.

Of course there are a few things that need to be in place before such an event to occur. Based on the rally I attended, here’s a guide to putting on your own great Project UNIFY Rally:

  • First, you need the support of a school board so you can have full participation from local schools. You’ll also need a venue and funding to put on the event.
  • Next, each school would need to hold a competition to select which students would represent the school and perform for the event. Performances should be youth-led and focus on respect, inclusion, unity or acceptance. The performances should include students of all abilities.
  • A great tool to help schools plan for the rally is Get Into It, which helps teachers with explaining and teaching the different aspects of inclusion, acceptance and respect. Movies that Move is another great tool to use in preparation for a rally because it is a visual way for students to learn about respect, unity, and accepting all abilities.
  • Now bring all the various pieces together along with a great and energetic EMC and some VIPs and you have will have a fun, great and powerful Project UNIFY Rally. Also, make sure you recognized the Unified Sports teams from the schools as a way to show how sports and respect go hand in hand. Just remember to have a great and fun time.

The Road to Respect

Recycle, race, respect, rejoice, relax, reject…

The list of “r-words” could go on forever, but in the eyes of any person associated with Special Olympics, there is one “r-word” that is not quite like the rest. This R-word alone has the power to take someone from happy to sad in a matter of seconds, the power to hurt, discriminate and stereotype. This R-word has the power to change lives.

This R-word is the word “retard/retarded.”

To a lot of people, March 7, 2012 felt like a normal Wednesday, but anyone in the Special Olympics family knows it was so much more than just a normal day. It was a day to promote acceptance, inclusion and respect for individuals with intellectual disabilities and spread awareness about everything our Special Olympics athletes can achieve in this world.

It was the Spread the Word to End the Word day!

The “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign was started in 2009 by two youth, and is now celebrated across the world. Starting as a campaign to eliminate the use of the R-word, the campaign has grown into so much more, and is changing the lives of individuals with intellectual disabilities.

I have hosted and observed campaigns for the last three years. Over those three years, the campaign and the responses towards our efforts have changed so much!

The first year the campaign was done, it is safe to say that there was a lot of resistance. Many people argued that it was their “freedom of speech” to use any word that they wanted, and that they weren’t directing it at those with disabilities. The second year gained more attention and positive responses, but this year was the most amazing year yet! This year, we made a huge leap towards social acceptance for all. Although I only got to attend two R-word campaigns this year, the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign was everywhere!

When I logged onto my Facebook on Wednesday, the amount of videos, blogs, stories, and posts about the campaign was amazing! I was receiving blast emails and texts all day, but things people were saying about the campaign wasn’t what was had been said in the past; they were no longer the normal “do not use the r-word,” but rather “individuals with intellectual disabilities are just like you and me. They deserve the same respect that everyone else does, so please think before you speak.”

When we ask people to sign the pledge to stop using the R-word, we aren’t simply asking people to not use a word, we are asking people to change their mind-sets. We are asking them to accept differences, embrace those with disabilities, and unite in a world of social acceptance.

This year, the real meaning behind the campaign was finally understood. With over 286,000 pledges so far, this campaign has come a long way, but still has a long way to go. The road to respect might not be an easy road, but with all of the amazing strength from the athletes, support from their families, and guidance from volunteers, as a family of Special Olympics, we WILL make it there!

Creating Positive School Climate

William Hughes, educational consultant and superintendent of the Greendale Wisconsin School District, is a regular contributor to the Special Olympics Project UNIFY blog. Below he details he experience with three Wisconsin School District as they exhibit positive school environments.

Several weeks ago the McCormick Foundation team studying civic mission of schools visited the Greendale School District, outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Greendale Schools are known for their exemplary commitment to “school climate.” When I tried to write a blog on unified sports in metro districts, I discovered Milwaukee area school districts were knowingly or unknowingly engaged in activities that used the principals of Project Unify.

In my opinion this is because of the positive school climate that is created by Project Unify.

According to the No Excuses report, a positive school climate is characterized by a clean, welcoming environment with visual reminders of the school’s mission; teachers and administrators who serve as role models, students who have the skills, confidence and opportunities to make a difference in their schools and communities, and policies, practices and infrastructure to support  one another.

Good schools and school districts have a positive school climate and out achieve similar schools or districts. Savvy school leaders know this and build on the disposition for positive school climate.

  • The Hamilton Sussex School District, led by Dr. Kathleen Cooke has an after school program that links youth with intellectual disabilities with peer students. This is unique because the Hamilton School District provides an after school activities bus so more kids can participate and more importantly, the students conceived, developed and lead the program.  (Watch for a future blog on this program after I interview the staff advisor and some students.  This is a school district worth watching!)
  • Students at Franklin School District are leading a campaign to end the R-Word.  Read more about the student’s campaign. Walking through the halls of Greendale High School last week, I glanced at school store window – a real store, operated and run by GHS students.  Front and center for sale and selling, a t-shirt from the Greendale Schools Best Buddies Club.

What is the secret of Greendale and Hamilton’s success?

I think it is because both districts hire student-centered school leaders and staff with a commitment to civic learning.   They engage in ongoing professional development, attending and presenting at conferences and sharing their learning with peers back in the district.

Building principals know each student by name, and students have an authentic voice in school governance. Faculty focuses on the development of the whole child via district-wide character education initiatives and inclusive education is embedded in the curriculum, and student autonomy and ownership are central to the design and implementation of our work in schools. Hamilton Superintendent Kathleen Cooke told me about the project in her district and gave the credit to the students and advisor.  This is another example of positive school climate and shared values.

This is important because a primary role of schools is to promote student achievement and citizenship. Good schools with strong positive school climates find work like Project Unify. The leaders and faculty as well as students have the disposition for the work.  Once, they find it, the rest comes along on its own.