Those who know Special Olympian Donald “DJ” Doughty best say he loves to tell jokes. After some encouragement from Spread The Word To End The Word event organizer Laura Baumgardner, he left a crowd of students, staff and community members with this, “Guess who I saw today? … Everybody I looked at.”
    Proudly wearing his Special Olympics medals around his neck, two golds and a bronze that he received at the Special Olympic Summer Games in Bloomington last year, Doughty was the keynote speaker at Pontiac Township High School’s 10th annual Spread The Word to End The Word pledge day assembly on Wednesday.
    “Today, I’m going to be telling these students my story,” Doughty said. “I’m going to talk about the fact that I’ve been called the ‘r-word’ my whole life.”
    This year’s pledge day falls in the middle of ‘Respect Week,’ March 3-11, which was proclaimed by the Livingston County Board and Pontiac City Council last month.
    Pontiac Township High School sophomore and Peers-in-Action member Madelyn Lee said everything has been going well. During the event assembly, it was reported that around 250 students participated in the poster contest during its first year and more than 800 students participated this year.
    “When we were younger, a lot of us heard the ‘r-word’ from time-to-time,” Lee said. “However, we’ve found that students today aren’t as familiar with it. We want the new ‘r-word’ to be respect, so that’s what the students are making posters about.”
    During the assembly, student Dylan Fletcher was asked to read his essay titled, “Respect is Golden.” In the essay, Fletcher admits to his past usage of the ‘r-word’ and his desire to remove the word from his daily language.
    “Respect is for everyone; why should I expect it, but not give it?” he read. “Respect is the gold in a first-place winner’s medal at the Special Olympics. Even though this champion has won first place in their event, they’ve won multiple challenges in their everyday life.”
    During the assembly introduction, Baumgardner was stopped for a moment by roaring applause, simply for mentioning the name of the event. After a few announcements and Fletcher’s essay reading,  Doughty took the stage with his mentor Nick Carlson, who asked Doughty questions, which Doughty used to tell his story.
    “We’re here today in honor of the Spread The Word To End The Word program,” Doughty said. “There is a saying that ‘sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me,’ but it’s not true. Words do hurt.”
    Doughty is a strong guy. He is called “beast mode” in the gym and said he can currently bench press 200 pounds, squat 210 pounds and deadlift more than 300 pounds. However, even someone as strong as Doughty can be hurt. The word he finds most hurtful is “retard.”
    “The first time I heard that word I was five years old, but I didn’t know what it meant at the time,” he said. “When I heard it, I was upset and angry. I went to my father and I asked him what it meant.
    “When I was in high school, I heard that word a lot more. It hurt my feelings and I felt like I didn’t fit in with other students. I wanted to have a girlfriend, I wanted to work, too. Not fitting in bothered me a lot.”
    While searching for a place to fit in, Doughty eventually joined a gang. Growing up in Chicago, Doughty said he identified with gang members because that was the place he felt accepted.
    “Eventually, they started asking me to do some of their crimes for them, but I said no,” Doughty said. “After high school, I went to Harold Washington College for one semester. After that, I didn’t go back because I was getting ready to go into my very first group home in Macomb. While I was there, I realized that I fit in and I joined Special Olympics.”
    The first year, Doughty competed in track, swimming, basketball and bowling. He said he eventually became a state champion in track. Then, when his mom retired, Doughty decided to move a little bit closer to his family in Chicago.
    “When I got to Pontiac, I was still competing in Special Olympics and right now I’m competing in power weightlifting, which includes bench pressing, squats and the deadlift,” Doughty said. “I’m a state champion and I’m planning to defend my title this year.”
    Although things have been looking up for Doughty lately, it hasn’t all been easy.
    “Since I got to Pontiac, I learned how to drive, I got my license last March and this year I got a new car and I currently work at Taco Bell,” Doughty said. “However, the ‘r-word’ is still causing me problems. One day, while I was working, my manager asked me to take out the trash and a customer called me the ‘r-word.’ It made me feel angry, but I walked away. When I got home that evening, I cried. So, the word still does bother me. Please, spread the word to end the word.”
    Reflecting on 10 years of Spread The Word To End The Word, Baumgardner said she is still as passionate as ever about respecting everyone.
    “I want all people to feel safe, wanted and included,” she said. “This campaign is about everyone. Today is one of my most favorite days of the year, a day to celebrate how far we have come. Please take the time today to think about this concept of respect. I urge all of you to take the pledge to Spread the Word to End the Word.”