“Spread the Word” raises awareness for disabilities

March 27, 2014 | 11 a.m.

Bethel’s Disability Awareness Group challenges the community to pledge to end the use of derogatory terms

Culture | Emma Nichols for The Clarion

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According to senior Kitty Leider, pictured on top right, 311 students pledged to stop using the "R-word." Leider hopes that Disabilities Awarness Month will help create an attitude of awareness on campus. | Photo for The Clarion by Drea Chalmers

March is Disabilities Awareness Month, and the warm weather has inspired Bethel students to come out of hibernation and start spring out right by making a pledge to do something different this year.

On March 5 and 6 in Brushaber Commons, Bethel University’s Disability Awareness Group (DAG) took part in “Spread the Word to End the Word,” a national campaign to stop the use of the “R-word.” Students took pledges to stop use of the word in an effort to create a more accepting and inclusive environment on campus.

March is the main awareness month for Bethel’s DAG, and other events will occur throughout the month, including a table for Brain Injury Alliance and Autism Awareness Day, as well as chapel speakers advocating for awareness.

Senior Kitty Leider started DAG during the fall semester. Her desire to form the group came from her passion for reconciliation, awareness and advocacy. Leider and senior Jillian Pearson started working as interns for Bethel’s Disability Resources and Services office and worked hard to launch the group on campus. They hoped the “Spread the Word” event would be a significant asset to the development of the group.

Pearson also worked on a video to promote the event that received over 3,500 hits on YouTube.

“To join something so national and strong has been really cool. We wanted DAG to emerge, and this was a great campaign to do it,” she said.

Special Olympics and Best Buddies International paired up with Bethel’s DAG to put on the event and provided supplies and marketing for the group, which Leider said was very helpful in furthering their cause. As interns, she explained, they had the time to dedicate to the group and the event itself, and because other students were not obligated to be involved, they enjoyed the help they received from the larger organizations.

Both Leider and Pearson expressed the need to “pave a path” for the future of the group, and they believe that this campaign got the ball rolling.

“I think with this successful campaign, we really showed members that this is a successful group, and we are going places,” Pearson said.

Whereas the group’s volunteers in the past typically did not believe they would make much of a difference if they helped, Pearson believes that now they have a reason to stay.

“We had 311 students pledge to stop using the ‘R-word,’ but it’s about more than that. It’s about creating attitudes of inclusion,” Leider said. “We hope that this event will raise society’s awareness of the dehumanizing and hurtful effects of this word. When people use the word ‘retarded’ as a synonym for ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid,’ it reinforces hurtful stereotypes and makes disabled people feel like they’re valued less.”

Both Leider and Pearson were in agreement that Bethel’s student body needs to be aware of these hurtful effects because of the large amount of Bethel students working with middle school and high school youth groups.

“If people at Bethel hear about it and then challenge their kids to pledge too, it’s a continuous streamline,” Pearson said.

The group received plenty of positive feedback about the event, the video and other marketing to raise awareness. College students both on and off campus noticed and chose to participate, many for the first time.

“This is the starting point of creating an environment that is more accepting and attitudes that are more accepting toward people with disabilities,” Leider said. “We want to make the point that language affects attitudes, and attitudes affect actions. The main thing is that we want to create a community where people will focus on other people’s gifts and accomplishments versus thinking they’re just a stereotype.”

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