Innovators of the Week: Mimi and Joey

The following post was written by Mimi and Joey, two Special Olympics youth leaders from Minnesota. The pair make it their mission to strengthen inclusion in their community. Check out how they #innovateforinclusion!

What if someone described you as “freckle face (insert your name)”? How would this make you feel? Would it make you feel weird, separated, or hurt? You cannot control the way you were born and yet you are labeled by others based off of your looks because that is what distinguishes you.

People with intellectual disabilities face this problem on a regular basis. When speaking to or about someone who has a disability, speak in the same way you would to or about anyone else. Remember children or adults with disabilities are like everyone else- they just happen to have a disability. When referring to an individual with an intellectual disability, always begin with the person first. For example, someone might say “This is my autistic friend Johnny”. That is incorrect. Instead you should say, “This is my friend Johnny who has autism”. Every person is made up of many characteristics and abilities, but few people want to be identified solely by those things.

Remember everyone is a person first. The Person First Campaign developed by Special Olympics Minnesota focuses on educating schools and students about the proper language used to describe someone with an intellectual disability in hopes of creating a more inclusive society. In a perfectly inclusive world, individuals would simply say, “this is my friend Johnny”.

The campaign was designed by the Special Olympics Minnesota Student Board of Directors. The unified board includes 40 high school and middle school students from around the state of Minnesota. The idea originated after reflecting upon the previous R-Word campaign, also created by Special Olympics. The R-word campaign focuses on banning the use of the word “retard” or “retarded”. After many years of schools running the campaign, feedback insinuated that there was not a need for the campaign because students no longer used the word. The campaign had done its job and eliminated the use of the r-word from students’ vocabulary. However, different from the R-word Campaign, the biggest goal the board wanted to create in the new Person First Campaign was to convey a positive message. Instead of telling students what not to do (“don’t use the r-word”),they wanted to tell students what they should say when referring to a person with a disability.

One idea led to another and the resulting product was simply perfect. The Person First Campaign kit sent to schools included an official #SpeakKindness pledge banner, ink pads, stickers, and a flash drive with additional campaign information. When pledging to speak kindness and use person first language, students and educators were encouraged to leave their thumbprint on the banner, sending a message that we are each a person first before any type of label or characteristic. In addition to the banner, students with and without disabilities had the opportunity to stamp their fingerprint and enlarge them to the size of a sheet of paper. Inside their fingerprint, they wrote about their accomplishments, who they are as a person, etc. The message of the project was to focus on who people are as a person and not what they are labeled as — after all, you can’t tell if a person has a disability or not by looking at their fingerprint. Also, since everyone’s fingerprint is different, the activity highlights the uniqueness of every individual.

Through the Person First Campaign, students learned to think about individuals as people before placing a label on them. It is a valuable lesson to learn at a young age. If students can change the way they think, they have the power to change someone else’s life. The unified generation growing in schools today is shifting school culture towards a more inclusive environment. The student who once felt left out or different because he/she was not the same as everyone else can now feel accepted. If we can change our schools, we can change our communities and eventually change the world.

In the future, I hope this campaign will not only be geared towards labels for individuals with disabilities. This campaign can be used to help eliminate any other labels society places on individuals regarding race, religion, or sexual orientation. In order to put the person first, instead of saying, “my Asian neighbor, my gay coworker, my Muslim friend” say, “ my neighbor, my coworker, my friend”. Through the campaign, people will learn that oftentimes labels are not necessary and that a person is a person no matter what they look like, who they know, or what they choose to believe in.

The 2018 Special Olympics Youth Innovation Grant initiative is supported through partnerships with Hasbro, Inc., The Samuel Family Foundation, theOffice of Special Education Programs at the United States Department of Education, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, and the Lions Clubs International Foundation. Learn more about these inspiring projects

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