Heinzman – Examing the gift of respect

By Don Heinzman

A Forest Lake High School student is giving a gift to every student with a learning disability by campaigning to end the use of the R word (retarded) in her high school.
Clint Riese, editor of the Forest Lake Times, covered this story that deserves to be followed and duplicated in other high schools.
Rachel Huset planned and carried out an all-school assembly where she explained her message: “Spread the Word to End the Word.”
The 2,000 students were silenced by Rachel’s simple message and comments from victims of the word’s use. Rachel told the students of her five-year special relationship with Emily, now a third-grader, who has a learning disability.
She told the hushed audience: “Emily means the world to me, and I want everyone to love her and accept her just as much as I do. She is my inspiration for this campaign. My initial goal was to start this campaign so that when Emily gets to high school, she will be loved and accepted just the way she is.”
She told the students that the R word “has absolutely no place in our vocabulary.”
“People with disabilities should not feel like they are not accepted or not wanted, and the R word creates that environment, whether you know that or not,” she said.
One who listened was Brett Gravelle, senior and hockey team captain, who acknowledged that students have used the word repeatedly and don’t know what they are saying.
Rachel had some aces up her sleeve. She introduced Zach Anderson, who explained he has a learning disability and Asperger’s syndrome.
“All that means is that my brain works a little differently than yours,” he told the students. “But I’m just a regular teenager that wants to be treated just like all of you. When someone says the R word, it makes me feel like you don’t think that I’m a regular teenager.”
He went on: “When you say it, I think that you think I am dumb. I am a hardworking student that gets A’s and B’s, so I’m not dumb. I’m a Link Leader. I’m a basketball player. I’m a friend. I’m a teenager just like you.”
Next, Rachel introduced Yoko Yang, the homecoming king, who has a learning disability, and he urged students to sign a banner pledging not to use the R word.
It’s rare when a student plans an assembly all 2,000 students have to attend. Steve Massey, high school principal, said Huset’s program easily met the high standards for such an assembly. He said when students rise up and take the lead on issues, they have the power of what can happen.
Now Rachel’s campaign is extending to the elementary schools. She learned of this international campaign when she volunteered with the Special Olympics.
During this Christmas season, students with learning disabilities can be thankful for the gift Rachel has given them – a new respect because they no longer have to hear the R word from their classmates.
Maybe other high schools can have this assembly and make a lot of students happier in the new year. Rachel welcomes your emails at Rachel.Huset@yahoo.com.

Don Heinzman is a columnist for ECM Publishers and a member of the ECM Editorial Board.

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