John Franklin Stephens is a Special Olympics athlete who has written a letter that we hope all Americans will read.
He wrote it earlier this week to conservative political pundit Ann Coulter after she used the word "retard" to refer to President Barack Obama. Coulter's disgraceful tweet came during the debate Monday between Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney: "I highly approve of Romney's decision to be kind and gentle to the retard," alluding to Romney's strategy of not directly attacking Obama.
The casual use of the word is repugnant to people who have learning or developmental disabilities, and to the people who love them.
Stephens called Coulter on it and reminded Americans why the word hurts.
"Come on Ms. Coulter, you aren't dumb and you aren't shallow," Stephens wrote. "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 ...
"... 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.
Stephens signed the letter "a friend you haven't made yet." It's posted on the specialolympics.org Website. Take a moment to read it.
Then ... next time you hear someone toss this hateful word off, in jest or in mockery, don't let it pass. Don't laugh or shrug. Tell them how deep that word cuts. How much it hurts. How toxic it is.
In 2009, Special Olympics launched a campaign called Spread the Word to End the Word. In a Chicago Tribune commentary, Maria King Carroll of West Peoria, Ill., promoted that idea by telling readers about her brother, Joseph, who was born with developmental disabilities in 1966.
"Today my brother lives in a supervised group home where he needs help with personal hygiene and can't drive a car," she wrote. "He also has a job, is a passionate fan of the Dallas Cowboys, comes home most weekends, and has one of the most finely calibrated moral compasses I've ever seen. ... Our world is much richer when all of us get to contribute our gifts. But it's hard to see people's value when names like retard are acceptable."