The topic of special needs is one Gloria Bass knows well. She’s the special needs coordinator at the Wilton Y, and her husband’s 19-year-old grandson, Artie, has intellectual delays and processing disorder.
So, when news broke that Republican commentator Ann Coulter used the R-word as a slur against President Obama in a tweet following Monday’s debate, Bass was understandably upset.
“I’ve heard the word often -- it’s disturbing. It’s not an appropriate way to describe someone,” she said. “People need to be aware -- it’s not an okay word.”
In her tweet, Coulter wrote: “I highly approve of Romney’s decision to be kind and gentle to the retard.”
Artie, who graduated Wilton High School last June, now attends the Rise Life Skills Program at Sacred Heart University and volunteers at the Y. On weekends he plays ice hockey and loves to go to antique car shows with his grandparents.
“He presents well but because of his disabilities, there’s a part of him that doesn’t get what people are saying. They’ll say, ‘What are you, retarded?’ Once he said, ‘My friend told me I was retarded.’ People don’t realize the impact. I’ve always wanted him to feel like a typical person, and he’s been very successful. I’ve spent years getting him prepared and his self-confidence up, and one little word becomes a huge word. It was very hard to explain it to him without hurting his feelings. I’m hurting for Artie,” Bass said.
The significant media coverage of public reaction once Coulter’s tweet went viral helped motivate Bass to try and raise awareness of how hurtful the R-word can be. Her idea was to create a contract that people could sign, pledging to never say the word themselves, and to raise awareness about ending the use of the word by others.
“We have to do something while this is out here and people are paying attention, this is the time to try to get attention to this. My daughter said, ‘Let’s get a contract together. Let’s get it done right now.’ So the two of us worked on it,” Bass explained.
Bass’s daughter, Faith Filiault, works as an advocate for families of children with special needs, running her Wilton-based practice, Advocate with Faith. She quickly got the electronic version of the contract online and on Facebook through Constant Contact. The two women are hoping the link goes viral—through Wilton and beyond.
“I just want people to stop and think before they open their mouth. I want parents to teach their kids so that kids aren’t making fun of it. Everybody has got to know somebody. What if it were their own child, their own brother, their own sister?” Filiault said.
Coulter followed up her post-debate tweet the following day with a second one that also contained the slur. Several published reports featured an open letter to Coulter written by Special Olympics athlete John Franklin Stephens, which went viral as well. Stephens, a 30-year-old man with Down syndrome, wrote:
“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.”
If Bass had the chance to talk to Coulter, she said she’d ask the pundit a very direct question.
“She’s a tough person to try to talk to but my question to her would be, ‘Do you understand how much you’re hurting people? Do you get how much you’re affecting the lives of so many children and adults?’"
Bass hopes to circulate paper copies of the contract for people to sign as well, either at the Wilton Y or elsewhere in town. She hopes to have copies during the Halloween Walk in Wilton Center on Saturday, and said she wants the entire community to take part.
“Artie was involved with Best Buddies at Wilton High School, and last year the group had their classmates sign a pledge that they would not use the r-word. I was impressed, but it needs to be on a larger scale. The community needs to be more onboard with it. The kids are signing it -- we need the parents to sign it too. It has to start from the parents.”
Bass won’t be sending any copies to Coulter; instead, she plans to focus on raising awareness here at home.
“I don’t know that [Coulter] gets it because she’s selfish. I don’t think that she’ll apologize. She did it before and didn’t apologize then.”
To sign the contract pledging to end the use of the R-word, click here.