The day a Special Olympian stood up to Ann Coulter for calling Obama a “retard”

With the Olympics coming up next week, it’s also time for the Special Olympics in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which began yesterday, and the Paralympics, which will take place in Sochi, Russia in March.

All of that got me remembering something that happened during the presidential debates in 2012 with our good friend Ann Coulter, who thought it wise to tweet the following: “I highly approve of Romney’s decision to be kind and gentle to the retard.”

It wasn’t the first time that Coulter has used the word “retard” to attempt to denigrate someone, but this time the conservative “pundit” quickly met her match when a Special Olympian, John Franklin Stephens, replied with a well-reasoned open letter to her that blew everyone away.

John Franklin Stephens

John Franklin Stephens

Stephens showed considerably more thought and consideration than Coulter did. He took her to task point by point. He described how difficult life can be for those who have a degree of mental retardation. Then he went on to explain that in spite of their many difficulties, people who suffer from mental retardation maintain a positive attitude in their lives and actually enjoy living.

He’s quite polite and gentle with Coulter, to his credit, and eloquent to boot. He shows clearly that being called a “retard” is far from insulting. It’s actually an enduring and powerful compliment.  His response got quite a bit of deserved attention from the media.

I’ve had patients who have had some degree of mental disability. Not surprisingly, they are often as hard working, goal oriented, practical, and as good of people as all my other patients. Many have an extraordinarily positive attitude, in spite of having to cope with huge problems on a daily basis. John can explain it much better than I can from his personal perspective.

He posted his open letter on the Special Olympics Blog at WordPress.  You can read that below, and then I posted a CNN appearance stephens did as well.

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 snarkey 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


Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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