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Make a pledge to ban the 'R-word'

"Retarded" — what do think when you hear this word? Slow? Stupid? Do you see someone as incapable in their daily lives because they take a little longer to reach the same finish line as you? If you look in the dictionary, you can see that the word is defined as slang, "a contemptuous term used to refer to a person who is cognitively impaired; or a person who is stupid, obtuse, or ineffective in some way."

I can tell you with full confidence that this is not how my friends, nor I, would describe ourselves.

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In high school, I remember hearing students using the R-word in everyday conversation. As they said it, I wondered if they understood that their use of the R-word as a term for "stupid" diminished all the accomplishments and amazing abilities of me and my other friends with intellectual disabilities.

Even my best friend, Corey, admits that he used the R-word until he met me in 10th grade when I came up to him in keyboarding class and asked if I could eat lunch with him. From there, his viewpoint changed and we developed a friendship that has lasted until today; I served as best man at Corey's wedding in 2010.

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To this day, I remember one instance on the bus, where most of my bullying happened, when I was told that I couldn't sit in the back because there were "no retards allowed" where the "cool" kids sat. After that, I realized that some people would never see me as "normal." I decided never to sit in the back again, because if that was "cool" I was fine just where I was.

What they could never have imagined is that, 35 brain surgeries later, I am now a college graduate, live in my own apartment, ride my bike 10 to 30 miles a day for both training and leisure, have earned two Gold Medals in the Special Olympics USA Games and have a great job that challenges and teaches me something new every day.

I was born with a condition known as Hydrocephalus, which causes cerebral spinal fluid to build up on my brain, so I am a bit slower in my everyday life and have to play catch-up in certain areas. I have worked hard and made it over so many obstacles to become the great 31-year old man I am today. I have friends who have worked hard to do the same, becoming creative artists, amazing public speakers and advocates for our cause.

We may have challenges in specific areas that require us to take a little extra time to get to the same finish line as you, but the point is, we make it. People with intellectual disabilities are amazing individuals who want to be loved and treated with dignity and respect, not used as the brunt of your joke or teased and taunted because they are different from you. There are so many things that we are, but a "retard" is not one of them.

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Next time you see someone with an intellectual disability, say "hi." See them as an equal, look past the differences you see or hear and ask them about themselves. You will be surprised to find out we have the same interests, goals and dreams as you. This is how we will become unified — with compassion, respect and kindness.

Adam Hays is a two-time gold medalist in Special Olympics Maryland. This op-ed was submitted as part of Special Olympics "Spread the Word to End the Word Day" (www.r-word.org).

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