Seeking Social Justice for All

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Tompkins Weekly 2-2-15

By Patricia Haines Gooding

It is pretty well accepted that any vision of “sustainable community” needs to include social as well as economic and environmental justice. Race, class, income level, education, ethnicity, age, gender; we know the -isms. I’m writing on behalf of a group that more often than not gets left out: the developmentally disabled.

Until the 1960s they were isolated in institutions or hidden by their families. In schools, communities and even families, they have been – still are – jeered and bullied as “retards”. It is only since the 1970s that agencies such as Unity House and the Racker Centers have emerged to provide homes as well as enrichment and support services. Unity House now serves 700 developmentally disabled adults – or, as the Supreme Court declared in 2013, “persons with intellectual disabilities – every day in in six counties.

But changes are in the wind – and we invite you all to join in. One of these changes, a ‘sign of sustainability’ in their own right, is WeACT (All Coming Together), an adult self-advocacy group that meets bi-weekly at Unity House. Founded in 2013 with help from the Self-Advocacy Association of NYS (, WeACT’s members help others and each others gain the skills to live independent and productive lives, and to speak up for what they believe in.

As Joe Gadwaw. WeACT President, says, “Our self-advocacy group is important because we’re there for each other, and want to make a difference for others. We do projects together and help others understand. I don’t like the way my brother and sister treat me and now I want to show them that I have feelings and that’s why I want to help people. People who bully may have been bullied themselves, but they still shouldn’t do it. An employer used the ‘r’ word and it really hurt and made it hard to do the work. Bullying is a learned behavior and we can all unlearn it.”

As hosts for a March 7th Center Ithaca event to Spread the Word to End the Word, Joe and his WeACT colleagues are now reaching out to share their lessons with the larger community.

In 2009, the Special Olympics Global Youth Forum inaugurated a Spread the Word national campaign; and by October 2014 over 500,000 people had pledged, online and at community events across the country, to “support the elimination of the derogatory use of the R-word from everyday speech and promote the acceptance and inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities” ( This March hundreds of events across the nation and in Europe will invite even more to take the Pledge, and join the movement.

On Saturday, March 7th, from 2:00-5:00 p.m. in Center Ithaca, WeACT and project partners Level Green and Cornell Best Buddies invite Tompkins County residents of all ages to add their voices to this national chorus. Come sign the Pledge, share stories, learn about upcoming opportunities, celebrate achievements, make posters, hear good music, watch inspiring movies. Individuals, families, organizations, agencies can bring their own information to share.

Numerous videos on YouTube and Vimeo elaborate upon how ‘retard’ is a ‘hate word’, ignoring and masking the unique value and contributions of every person. The movement – Spread the Word, Best Buddies, Special Olympics Project UNIFY – means more than countering a negative. Celebrities, parents, youth and children testify to the joy of celebrating achievements.

Let’s add a Tompkins County chapter to the expanding story. And be a community where we respect and value differences, beyond labels of the past, working together toward a brighter, more inclusive future.

Patricia Haines Gooding is with the Level Green Institute.

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