Stephanie Hardy remembers what life was like as a high school student with intellectual disabilities. There were days she would walk through the quad and bullies would stuff her in a trashcan, and other days would come with name-calling.
She wanted to be seen and acknowledged like the rest of the students – but not like that.
“That means you’re not allowed to be in the ‘senior quad,’” she interpreted the treatment, at the time. “’Hey, we don’t want you here.’”
Unfortunately, it’s a similar story many Special Olympics Southern California athletes have stored in their memories, as ESPN highlighted in this video package that aired earlier this summer during the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games:
That all-too-familiar word – retarded – has since become fuel in a mission for change. That mission comes in the form of the R-Word Campaign, an annual day of awareness about the hurtful, derogatory remark and a pledge to put an end to its use. More than 200 organizations around the world support the campaign, including Special Olympics and Best Buddies.
At schools, rallies bring together the general and special education students to promote a more inclusive environment. Stephanie, now 47 and a Global Messenger who makes public speaking appearances representing Special Olympics Southern California, said the involvement in the schools is “the best thing we do.”
“SOSC teaches [us] it’s OK to be who you are,” she said. “We tell people in schools the R-Word is unacceptable.
“I want them to understand what I went through.”
Stephanie credits Special Olympics for assisting in her maturation, as well as her now-outgoing nature. Once a self-described shy individual in public circles, she joked that she’s now asked to pull back in conversations, at times. Her growth eventually led to a term on the Special Olympics Board of Directors as an athlete representative.
Athletically, Stephanie has most recently competed in bocce, golf and volleyball for Special Olympics Orange County. With more than 35 years of experience with Special Olympics, she also looks back fondly at the days when Southern California used to offer winter sports, and even equestrian, which she earned three gold medals in at the 2003 Special Olympics World Games in Ireland.
Now, her big focus is on “giving back to the community” by spreading the word about Special Olympics. She assists with the Kiwanis Club, helping her father Rich make pancakes for breakfast gatherings and fundraisers.
Stephanie makes an effort to give her business card to those she comes across, hoping the gesture puts a face and personal interaction to the Special Olympics brand.
“’Oh, this person is in Special Olympics,’” she added.
“We’re trying to tell people, ‘Hey, come and watch.’ If they like it, that’s great.”
In her mind, the next interaction could be with another potential volunteer, maybe an addition to the Fans in the Stands, or even a future Unified Experience bocce partner.
“It’s just to let them know we are there,” Stephanie said. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”
You could say that Stephanie and her peers are more visible than ever – and for all the right reasons.