Kind words

Story by Rob Hanson

UW-Eau Claire senior Lindsay Steig expected a new, insightful experience and at the very least, a way to get involved in her major when she started volunteering with the UWEC Best Buddies program two years ago.

What Steig didn’t expect was that she would go on to hold a position as a college buddy director for the group or that she would eventually lead a crusade against the use of the word retard(ed).

But then again, everything changed for the Wausau, Wis., native when she first met her “buddy.”

The Best Buddies program matches students with people who have various disabilities. The disabled people involved with the UWEC Best Buddies are as young as high-school age and as old as 65, Steig said.

Steig, an early childhood special and general education double major, said when she met her “buddy,” Alex Nelson, now 20, the two got to know each other just like any other acquaintances might.

Nelson was too shy to talk on the phone at first, but the two were in contact frequently and got to know each other quite well.

“I didn’t think that I would have an amazing friendship,” Steig said. “I just thought, ‘Oh, I’ll just be important to this person and call her and whatever.’ . But we are really good friends.”

Now Steig and Nelson chat on the phone weekly and go out together for other activities like movies and bowling.

“It’s anything that you would do with any of your friends, except she has a disability,” Steig said.

As Steig spent more time with Nelson, she became aware of what would become her passion: ending the use of derogatory and hurtful language toward disabled people used in everyday conversation.

Steig said she talked to Nelson about the ‘R’ word and has often heard people use it while the two are out having fun. Something, she said, can be hard to ignore.

Steig’s desire to eradicate the ‘R’ word was only furthered when she attended a leadership conference for the Best Buddies program, where Soeren Palumbo – the founder of “Spread The Word To End The Word” – discussed the mission of the campaign and encouraged students to bring it to their own respective campuses.

And that she did.

Steig and the Best Buddies program hosted the “Spread The Word” event last week in Davies Center and Hilltop.

National “Spread the Word” day is March 3, but Steig and the UWEC Best Buddies held the event over two days to spread awareness to even more students. As part of the campaign, students could pledge to stop using the word retard(ed) by signing large banners.

Steig said the organization collected 502 signatures despite hopes the number would reach thousands.

“It’s a good starting point, but I feel like our campus has a long way to go,” Steig said.

When Steig has down time – which is rare, she said – she, like many other college students, likes watching sports and spending time with her boyfriend. But when she’s on campus, Steig is all business.

Steig’s academic advisor, Cathy Thorsen, assistant professor of special education, said the chipper, always on-the-go Steig has been an incredible leader in raising awareness through Best Buddies.

“She does like to get involved and she is a very strong advocate of eradicating the ‘R’ word,” Thorsen said. “I saw the light bulb go on when I had her in my introductory special ed class where she was like, ‘Wow, I never realized (how hurtful the word is).’

“She’s a go-getter.”

Junior Hannah Judisch has been with the organization for three years and has worked with Steig.

Judisch agreed that much of the Best Buddies program’s success has been related to Steig’s activism.

“Lindsay and the other board members have done a ton to get people involved,” Judisch said. “(Best Buddies) grew by leaps and bounds this year.”

Best Buddies grew from 33 matched pairs of students and their buddies last year to 55 this year, Steig said.

Looking ahead
Steig has one more “super senior” year to complete before she will pursue a career in teaching – a carrer she said will most likely be spent working with disabled children up to the age of 9.

But until then, Steig said she still has work to do in changing the mind set of the campus.

Despite her deep hatred for the ‘R’ word, Steig said she won’t yell at someone for using it. Her philosophy is that there is no point in getting so worked up about it as to cause a scene.

Instead, she said a gentle ‘I would appreciate it if you would not use that word’ can remedy the situation for those who have been offended by the use of the word.

Steig said she is, on one hand, surprised that educated students — who are generally more aware of political correctness – use derogatory terms as much as they do. However, she said that most people just aren’t aware of how hurtful the terms can be.

Steig said people would most likely stop using such harmful language if they actually knew someone who was disabled.

And the list of derogatory terms doesn’t stop with the ‘R’ word, Steig said phrases like ‘That’s so gay’ that are all too commonly used can be very offensive to other people.

Despite the ongoing use of such terms, Steig said she hopes the campus will someday be a place where people can accept all others and refrain from using hurtful and inappropriate language.

Awareness is the only thing that can make that happen, she said.

“You’re not going to have the opportunity to change people if you don’t ask them (to stop using the ‘R’ word),” she said.

For more information on the UWEC Best Buddies program or the “Spread The Word To End The Word” campaign, visit or