By Kim Walter
Faculty and students at Warren County High School are practicing the 'Spread the Word, End the Word' campaign in conjunction with the school's first Disabilities Awareness Week.
Since Monday, the school has been promoting ending the use of the words "retard" or "retarded" in a vulgar way among students in their everyday conversation.
Health and Physical Education teacher Brandon Wakefield, who is also a sports coach at the school, came up with the idea for an awareness week when he found out October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month. The 31-year-old is a father of 1 1/2-year-old twin girl -- one of whom has Down syndrome.
"October is also Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but I felt that students with disabilities should have their chance to be recognized, too," he said. On Monday, an assembly was held during which Wakefield gave a presentation and showed a video about the 'Spread the Word, End the Word' campaign. The school is promoting the campaign in partnership with the Special Olympics.
Both his daughters attended the assembly.
Throughout the week, Wakefield said other teachers have overheard students starting to use the words "retard" or "retarded" in a derogatory manner, but either stopped themselves or were stopped by a friend.
"When I was in school, the words were used pretty freely, and even I used them when I was younger and immature," he said. "But it's still out there. What people don't understand is when they use it in the wrong way, they really are downgrading an entire population."
"Once I had my daughter, I kind of looked around and tried to do more to help her ... you feel like you have to when something like that directly relates to you," he added. "My daughter is not Down syndrome. She's not worthless or stupid. It is simply a characteristic, just like the color of her eyes."
Students were encouraged to convey their true message, instead of using the words when talking to friends.
Wakefield said the staff and students have been supportive of the awareness week, and he's even heard from a few special needs students. One girl with an intellectual disability thanked him after the assembly, as she felt that it "spoke for her."
The school supports other related activities through various groups, like the Wildcat Buddies, which sets students up with disabled students so they can eat lunch together or help them with homework, among other things.
Friday night's football game at Warren County High School has been labeled as the "Game for Respect," during which donations will be taken to benefit Blue Ridge Opportunities in Front Royal. The nonprofit organization works with the community's special needs population and offers job skills for after graduation as well as employment opportunities.
Wakefield said his goal is to raise at least $1,000, but "the more, the better." Next year, he would like the to see the awareness week spread to Skyline High School, and maybe even to schools in surrounding counties.
"This week has just been amazing," he said. "We're definitely doing some good things here."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org