If you haven’t said it yourself, then you’ve probably heard someone else say it: “That’s retarded.”

A lot of kids think this description — calling someone “retarded” or “a retard” — is okay, especially if it’s a joke. There is a growing awareness that these words are hurtful no matter how they are used.

The Special Olympics, which are going on now through July 4 in Greece, has created the “R-word Campaign” to raise awareness that these words are hurtful. Kids like 11-year-old Peter Netchvolodoff of the District are already trying hard not to let the words slip out.

“It’s offensive to people who have mental disabilities, like people with autism or Down syndrome,” said Peter, who first learned about the issue in school. “They didn’t choose to have a mental disability — they were born that way. It’s kind of like saying they’re not as good as us.”

An important change

The description “mentally retarded” has been used for years to refer to people with medical conditions that cause below-average intelligence and difficulty learning daily living skills. But such people can have a wide range of abilities, so they are now more commonly referred to as “people with intellectual disabilities.” This is similar to the Special Olympics athletes being known as “people with disabilities.”

“What we try to emphasize as much as possible is ‘person first,’ ” said Ryan Eades, a manager for the Special Olympics. It sends a message that these people are part of regular society and deserve respect, he said, even if they are not like you.

Last year, the United States government passed a requirement that all documents and laws use the term “intellectual disability” and not mental retardation. The law is called Rosa’s Law, named after Rosa Marcellino, a 10-year-old girl from Edgewater, Maryland, who has Down syndrome. Rosa’s family was upset that Rosa was often referred to as “retarded,” even on official school documents.

The family contacted a local lawmaker about having that term changed in their school district. There was so much support for the change that it was adopted by the state of Maryland and, eventually, the federal government.

Changing habits

But to make the change stick, it can’t just be the government that changes; people have to stop saying “retard” and “retarded” as a joke, too.

Sammy Toggas, 9, of the District, said he has sometimes said it as a joke, even though he knows he’s not supposed to. But now other kids notice it. “They’ll say, ‘Ooooh, I’m going to tell on you,’ ” Sammy said.

Kids are important to making this change, Eades said, because they are naturally sensitive to being hurt or excluded. So you can help. Make the change yourself, then tell your friends, your siblings and, if you have to, even your parents: The R-word is not okay.

— Margaret Webb Pressler