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Let’s End the R-Word Once and For All

Courtesy of the Special Olympics

John Franklin Stephens, Special Olympics Virginia athlete and global messenger, first spoke out in a 2008 essay calledUsing the Word 'Retard' to Describe Me Hurts.” Last October, he wrote an open letter to conservative commentator Ann Coulter, calling her out for her use of the R word as a slur in a tweet. The letter has been viewed more than 3 million times. Frank, as he’s known to friends, has gone on to speak about discrimination all over the country. In honor of Spread the Word to End the Word’s annual day of awareness, we asked Frank to reflect on the Ann Coulter aftermath, the reason he now thanks her, and why he’s so much more than just a label. Frank will also be a guest on HuffPo Live on March 6 at 6pm EST.

It has been a little more than four months since I wrote an open letter to a political commentator asking her to reconsider the use of the term “retard” as a synonym for “loser.” I have received no indication that I have had any luck changing her mind. 

I am pleased to say, however, that a lot of people have been exposed to our little debate. The overwhelming majority of comments have been responsive to my argument that the term is one of those unthinking slurs that we could best do without. We should think before we casually perpetuate ugly stereotypes.

People still ask me about what is so wrong with using the R-word. I can only say what it means to people like me when we hear it. It means that the rest of you are excluding us from the group we want to be part of. That’s the hardest thing--the loneliness. We process information slower than you do, so even keeping up in a normal conversation is a constant battle for us. We are aware when you stop and just look at us while we are trying to catch up. We are aware when you just say “uh-huh,” and then move on, talking to each other. You mean no harm, but you have no idea how alone we can feel, even when we are with you.

During one of the television appearances immediately after my letter went viral, I joked that I wanted to “thank [Ms. Coulter] for introducing me to 3.2 million new friends on the internet.” 

I confess: I really have loved all the attention. I loved being on television. I am proud that my story will be included in a book about young people who advocate for themselves and that something else I wrote is being published as part of a writing curriculum for middle-school students. I love being asked to speak to students about how hurtful bullying can be. 

But none of this is how I dream of my life. Because I am so much more than that one word.

What I would really love to be known as is just another actor/screenwriter hoping to be discovered. You see, I have a role in a movie due out this spring called The Senior Prank, and I have written a screenplay for a short film called Common Dreams that I hope to get produced this year.  

That’s how I see myself and what I am most proud of. That’s my dream: that one day you will look at me and see the person (and maybe the actor/screenwriter?) first, and not the disability. When that happens, we won’t any of us worry so much about labels.

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