One of the most vivid memories from my childhood was show-and-tell day in first grade. While most classmates brought in their favorite Cabbage Patch doll or G.I. Joe action figure, I decided to bring in my older sister Gabrielle who was born with an intellectual disability called Down syndrome. Even at 6 years old, I knew people might perceive my sister as different, so I wanted to show my peers that Gabrielle was just like everyone else and there was nothing to be afraid of. I would consider that seminal moment my first act as an advocate for my sister. In the years following, my voice as an advocate became stronger as I was confronted with, and spoke up about, the misuse of the word “retarded.” This film is a continuation of that advocacy.
To say that my relationship with Gabrielle has been the single greatest learning experience of my life would be an understatement. She has informed how I interact with others, especially those that come from marginalized or disenfranchised communities. Once I discovered my love of film, I knew I wanted to combine that passion with the love and pride I feel for my sister to try and give voice to her community. After much research, I realized there wasn’t a film out there confronting the language surrounding people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, so the idea for “The R-Word” film was born.
Unfortunately, there is still great misunderstanding about people with disabilities and misperceptions about their day-to-day lives. A lot of people don’t know that individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities have the same wants and needs, challenges and triumphs as everyone else. I knew making this film was about more than just one word — it was also about challenging the attitudes that uphold the barriers to true inclusion and respect and shining a light on the universality of the human experience. To fully understand why the r-word still exists, we all have to take a step back and question our own biases towards this community; only then can we get to the root cause of why this word is still so prevalent in our culture.
I hope the film resonates with everyone, no matter their age, race, gender, sexual orientation or religious affiliation, because at its foundation, “The R-Word” is about acceptance and love – something that’s of increasing importance as our society seems more divided than ever. We all have the power to impact someone else’s life in a positive way, and it starts with remembering to think before we speak.
You can see “The R-Word” at the ReelAbilities Film Festival in New York City on Monday, April 8, 2019.