NEAL CONAN, HOST:
And now the Opinion Page, and an issue that was pushed aside by hurricane coverage that we wanted to get back to. Last month, after the final presidential debate, conservative pundit Ann Coulter labeled President Obama "the retard" on Twitter and set off a controversy, not on politics so much, but on that word. John Franklin Stephens, a man living with Down syndrome, wrote an open letter on the Olympic - Special Olympics blog the next day. Come on, Ms. Coulter, he wrote. You aren't dumb. You aren't shallow. Why are you still continually using a word like the R word as an insult?
We want to hear from those of you with cognitive disabilities. How do you respond when people use the word "retard"? 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And John Franklin Stephens joins us from a studio in Arlington. Nice of you to have - be with us today.
JOHN FRANKLIN STEPHENS: Same here, too, Neal.
CONAN: Ann Coulter, as you know, stands by her tweet, says it was not directed at anybody with a cognitive disability and was not meant as to insult you.
STEPHENS: Correct. It wasn't meant to insult me at all. It was meant to insult Barack.
CONAN: President Obama.
CONAN: And she wondered, if this word is placed off limits, well, how soon will it be before "idiot" or "moron" or "imbecile" is next?
STEPHENS: I hope those words don't get shared at all, because she knows that those words just like the R word is offensive.
CONAN: Offensive. How do you - how does it make you feel when you hear it or see it or read it?
STEPHENS: It hurts. It really hurts because when you say something like that, it's like you're thinking of us as someone who is dumb and shallow. And we are not any of those things at all.
CONAN: And it was interesting. One of the things you said in the letter you wrote: I first thought of asking you 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 new way to succeed in life as many of my special fellow - my fellow Special Olympians have. So sort of turning that on her a little bit.
STEPHENS: It was kind of aimed at her, but I'm hoping that she can rise above this and see life anew. I hope.
CONAN: There have been other people in the media who've used the R word to describe someone. You have to have seen it before. What made you decide to write a letter this time?
STEPHENS: I had to write a letter after I spoke to the Steward School out in Richmond, which I gave an anti-bullying message, telling them that it's not OK to use the R word because it's not only offensive, it's hurtful. But when you use a word like the R word, you need to understand that that's labeling us as someone who is dumb and shallow. But if they want to use us as a symbol, they should use us as a symbol as someone who fights adversity.
CONAN: It's interesting. You've several times used the word "dumb." When we're starting to label words as hurtful, well, it's easy to step across lines that you may not even know exist. Might someone who has difficulty speaking regard the word "dumb" as an insult?
STEPHENS: Yes. I mean, "dumb" can be an insult. Almost any word could be an insult, and we have to learn to not use those words anymore because I know that there can be nice people in this world. They just need to learn to be nice.
CONAN: And need to learn a little bit more about your world, because it's not something most of us experience. It's not something most of us know anything about. And the fact is that, well, just because you have cognitive disabilities does not mean that you can't do anything.
STEPHENS: That's right. I mean, I'm able to do a lot. I mean - I've done - I recently did a movie, back in August, called "The Senior Prank," and I've also written a screenplay about my own movie called "Call My Dreams," and I am looking for backers.
CONAN: OK. Well, you've made your pitch. "The Senior Prank," at a guess, that might be about bullying?
STEPHENS: It is. It's actually about bullying because it's about a girl who was bullied at her homecoming. But then after - but she realizes that bullying is not the way to go.
CONAN: We're talking with John Franklin Stephens, a Special Olympics Virginia athlete and global messenger. He competes in soccer, softball, basketball, golf and equestrian events. And he wrote "An Open Letter to Ann Coulter" in response to her tweet during the final 2012 presidential debate. We'd like to hear from those of you with cognitive disabilities. When you hear the R word, how does it make it you feel? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. Caroline's(ph) on the line with us from Phoenix.
CAROLINE: Hi. How are you?
CONAN: I'm well. Thank you.
CAROLINE: Good. I have a son who will be 20 years old. I'm sorry, this chokes me up a little bit. He has autism and Down syndrome. He is a tremendous young man. He is the director of Best Buddies at his high school. He had a minimum-wage job this summer. When people use that word, it's more reflective of their abilities than my son's.
CONAN: And does - is he aware of - does he feel the pain?
CAROLINE: He thinks everyone is good. I will tell him when people have been disrespectful. I have a neighbor the other day who not only made a racial but a disability-related slur related to my son, so he knows that he's not allowed to talk to that man. My son, he knows he has Down syndrome. He thinks it's very cool to have Down syndrome. He says, yeah, Down syndrome. We rock.
CONAN: (Laughing) Frank, does that resonate with you?
STEPHENS: Yeah. I mean, I feel very special knowing that I've got Down syndrome. I've been involved in a lot of not only sports and Special Olympics, I've done - I've been in Global Messengers. I mean, there are a lot of fun opportunities that your son can be a part of.
CAROLINE: Well - and as I like to think of it, he's the young man with something extra.
CONAN: Caroline, thank you very much for your call.
CAROLINE: Thank you.
CONAN: And let's see if we can go next to - this is Stephanie(ph). Stephanie with us from San Antonio.
STEPHANIE: Hi. Hi, Frank. I am a special needs teacher. And wherever I've taught and I've taught in five different states, whenever the R word was said - as a policy, whenever the R word was used, we had that student come and sit in my classroom to experience how hard and how special my students were, and that that word is an insult not only to my students but also to them.
And it brings into question Ann Coulter's knowledge and vocabulary and use of vocabulary and respect because she meant that word as an insult. And when you mean that word as an insult, then you are insulting everybody that that could be used against. So I question her knowledge. I question her intelligence when she thinks that it's still OK to use that word.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Stephanie.
STEPHANIE: Mm-hmm. Thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate it. And, John Franklin Stephens, we were talking earlier about your work with Special Olympics. You also work for a living.
STEPHENS: I do. I work at Wildflour Bakery and Catering in Chantilly.
CONAN: And are you able in that job to be treated like more or less everybody else?
STEPHENS: Yeah. I mean, they treat me the way people should be treated, like they're welcomed, they're loved. They know that they can respect people, and they feel very warmed by the reception that people like me can receive.
CONAN: Here's an email we have from Mike in Jacksonville, Florida: I have a mentally retarded son. And in my opinion, people need to stop declaring words as off-limits. There's nothing offensive about the word "retarded." It's actually more accurate to use the word "retarded" than the word "disabled." If they were mentally disabled, they would be completely shutdown and essentially a vegetable. Mentally retarded means not operating at full capacity.
Is there - to your knowledge, is there some disagreement within the community as to whether the word is offensive or not?
STEPHENS: That's not really - well, I think that when they use the word - the R word, I think that people can learn to be smarter. I mean, when they use that word, they - I mean, that isn't - not a smart word, thinking that we are not smart at all. We are smart. We can learn things more than we used to. But now, I feel very confident knowing that I'm as smart.
CONAN: It seems to me - and I don't mean to put words in your mouth, but it seems to me that you're speaking about the usage of the word as an insult rather than the specific definition of the word, someone who's held back a little bit.
STEPHENS: Well, I'm not really held back by anything. I'm more like the person that goes forward. I think of life something different. I mean, there can be ups and downs, but we have to learn just to push forward.
CONAN: Our guest on the Opinion Page this week, John Franklin Stephens, a Special Olympics athlete and global messenger. You can find a link to his "An Open Letter to Ann Coulter" on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And Bailey's on the line. Bailey calling us from Oklahoma City.
CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BAILEY: Hi. I wanted to talk about Ann Coulter's use of - or her argument for her use of the R word. She said that it's not offensive and that it's the same as saying cretin or moron, and it's definitely not. I'm a college student right now, and my major is special education for severe and profound. And my son has autism and mental retardation. And I agree with what you guys were saying earlier. We should be - we - or what someone had called in and said or emailed. We should be able to say the word "retarded." We should be comfortable with that word. It's still in legislation. But we're not comfortable with it because of people like Ann Coulter saying those things.
CONAN: And so her usage of it, was that legitimate, do you think?
BAILEY: No, it was not at all. Like she should - if we're going to call someone retarded, it should be someone who is retarded, who has mental retardation, not to offend somebody. She used it solely to offend somebody and refused to accept that it was - it's the legal term for mentally retarded. She thinks that you can call people who aren't disabled retarded and that's not offensive. But as soon as you call someone who's actually mentally retarded, that's offensive, and it should be the complete opposite way around.
CONAN: And where are you in your studies, Bailey?
BAILEY: I'm a senior right now at UCO, the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond and actually on my way to class right now.
CONAN: Bailey, thanks very much for the call.
BAILEY: Thank you.
CONAN: And let's see if we go next to - this is Becky(ph), and Becky on the line with us from Princeton in New Jersey.
CONAN: Hi, Becky.
BECKY: I wanted to thank Mr. Stephens. My daughter has Angelman syndrome, which renders her non-verbal. And I thought his response to Ms. Coulter was wonderful, and it was incredible. And I would be thrilled to have him as a friend. I also wanted to point out that I think if we're smart enough to parse the word "retarded" in such a way that we can try to make it OK, we're smart enough to think of a different way to talk about this. And the word "retarded," the problem is that it implies that there's normal and there's non-normal, and it doesn't embrace the world of neurodiversity, which is what we're trying to do when we're trying to eliminate words like retarded and moronic and idiotic, et cetera.
CONAN: Becky, thanks very much. And we had a caller from Princeton earlier. How are you doing with your power?
BECKY: I'm still waiting for power.
BECKY: But we're so much better off than the people down at the shore. So, you know, we just have to count our blessings right now.
CONAN: Becky, thanks very much for the...
BECKY: Thank you.
CONAN: ...thanks for the call. And, John Franklin Stephens, I wanted to ask you what kind of response have you gotten to your open letter?
STEPHENS: I have gotten 3.2 million new friends online as we speak.
CONAN: I think you just got another one there on the phone. Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Paula, and Paula's on the line with us from Portland.
PAULA: Hi. So many people calling in have such good points. And I'm a flight attendant, and I have a daughter with autism. And recently, I had a woman on the airplane just come up to me out of the blue and started telling me she thought this was retarded and that was retarded. And I said, you know, are you sure you don't mean that that was ridiculous or that was foolish, or this is inconvenient or things like that? I said, I think that you're, you know, and I think Ann Coulter wouldn't like it if we use - some people use the word woman or femmey or words like that instead of using weak or, you know, and I think that she's doing to people with disabilities what people like her would not want us to do to women.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And it sounds like that person you're talking about, in some ways, the worst case of all, using it thoughtlessly.
PAULA: Oh, completely and I told her. I said, you know, I don't think that that's exactly what you mean, for one thing. I think that you need to look at that. I said, I, you know, you may not realize but that's an offensive and hurtful thing to say. You don't know how that makes people feel.
CONAN: Paula, thanks very much for the phone call.
PAULA: I think we should all do that. I think when somebody said that, have the guts to just stand up and say, and you don't have to hurt their feelings or make them feel foolish. Just bring it to their attention.
CONAN: Which is exactly what John Franklin Stephens did in "An Open Letter to Ann Coulter" on the Special Olympics website. And thanks very much. Congratulations on the piece and congratulations on all your new friends.
STEPHENS: OK. Thank you.
CONAN: John Franklin Stephens is a Special Olympics athlete and global messenger. Again, there's a link to his "Open Letter to Ann Coulter" on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us from a studio in Arlington, Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.