There have been numerous occasions in my life when someone I am with chooses not to understand my “disability quirks.” Sometimes my cerebral palsy means that my body goes into spasm or I laugh at inappropriate times. If that is not embarrassing enough, more often than I would like, I have been told by some that I look or sound “retarded.” I have always wondered if people think that saying that to me will make me “turn off” the behaviors that are out of my control, or if they simply want to make me feel bad about myself because their connotation of that word is so negative.
Although the story was from a couple of years ago, this afternoon I read the following letter, which had been reposted to Facebook. I have two responses. First, I hope the next time an incident like this happens to me, I can speak half as eloquently as John Franklin Stephens did. Second, I would like to extend to you my personal thanks, Mr. Stephens, for explaining to the world that those of us with disabilities are just as intelligent and capable as those without disabilities. In some cases, like the one described below, we are much more so. Just sayin.
After Ann Coulter referred to President Obama as a “retard” in a tweet during Monday night’s (October 2012) presidential debate, Special Olympics athlete and global messenger John Franklin Stephens penned her this open letter:
Dear Ann Coulter,
Come on Ms. Coulter, you aren’t dumb and you aren’t shallow. So why are you continually using a word like the R-word as an insult? I’m a 30-year-old man with Down syndrome who has struggled with the public’s perception that an intellectual disability means that I am dumb and shallow. I am not either of those things, but I do process information more slowly than the rest of you. In fact, it has taken me all day to figure out how to respond to your use of the R-word last night. I thought first of asking whether you meant to describe the President as someone who was bullied as a child by people like you but rose above it to find a way to succeed in life as many of my fellow Special Olympians have.
Then I wondered if you meant to describe him as someone who has to struggle to be thoughtful about everything he says, as everyone else races from one snarky sound bite to the next. Finally, I wondered if you meant to degrade him as someone who is likely to receive bad health care, live in low-grade housing with very little income and still manages to see life as a wonderful gift. Because, Ms. Coulter, that is who we are – and much, much more.
After I saw your tweet, I realized you just wanted to belittle the President by linking him to people like me. You assumed that people would understand and accept that being linked to someone like me is an insult and you assumed you could get away with it and still appear on TV. I have to wonder if you considered other hateful words but recoiled from the backlash. Well, Ms. Coulter, you, and society, need to learn that being compared to people like me should be considered a badge of honor. No one overcomes more than we do and still loves life so much. Come join us someday at Special Olympics. See if you can walk away with your heart unchanged.
A friend you haven’t made yet,
John Franklin Stephens
Global Messenger Special Olympics Virginia
On the Alan Colmes radio show the following Wednesday, she defended her statement. Her argument was that she would never call a person with a disability a “retard,”but because President Obama did not have a disability, the use of the word was okay. Seriously, that is what she said. When Mr. Colmes pointed out that some people with disabilities see the word “retard” as offensive as the “n” word, Ms. Coulter’s response was “Screw them!” and called those who were offended the “word police.”
Why does this story still resonate with me? Because I routinely come across people who underestimate my intellectual ability because of my physical limitations. The scenario played out just a few weeks ago. I won’t bore you with the details. Long story. Short life. Suffice it to say that the whole situation royally sucked.
Nobody has ever told Ms. Coulter, she cannot use that word if she chooses. But in the words of Tim Shiver, Chairman of the Special Olympics:
“You’re allowed to be humiliating, degrading and hurtful,” Shriver told Stephen Colvert in an interview, “and I’m allowed to petition you to at least recognize what you say and be aware of the option you have to stop.”
I agree with Mr. Shriver’s philosophy in his campaign to get people to refrain from using that word. He wants to be seen as a teacher, not a policeman.
I truly appreciate your effort, Mr. Stephens, in more ways than I can ever express. It just doesn’t seem like Ann Coulter is ever going to get it.
So, this is my question. Am I allowed to call her ignorant?