John Franklin Stephens: Standing Up to Bullying

Shea Gendron, Staff Writer

A standing ovation marked the end to John Franklin Stephens’ speeches at the Norwich Free Academy. Stephens, a 33 year old man with Down Syndrome, is famous for sending a strongly worded letter to Ann Coulter, a conservative social and political commentator, after she called President Obama a “retard” on social media.

In his letter, Stephens said, “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.”

Stephens’ day at NFA started with a pep rally for Preston Middle School students. Following his speech, he joined members of the NFA special education program at lunch in the Brickview Inn. Later in the day,  he gave another speech in Slater Auditorium to a packed house of NFA students. That night, he delivered a speech to members of the Norwich community.

Special education teacher Katie Beit arranged Stephens’ visit and organized the entire day.   “I hope kids are inspired by John and his message, and for all our students and adults alike to be accepting of individuals with disabilities.”

Beit met Stephens in the summer of 2015 at the Special Olympics. Beit along with senior Connie Ma, and NFA alum Jeffrey Hynes, went to the Special Olympics after Ma and Hynes created a 10-page project on how to bring a unified program to NFA’s sending towns. Beit became friends with Stephens on Facebook, and then invited him to speak at NFA.

Upper Kayla Tosses found his presentation uplifting. “It was really good; it was a different outlook, and in his perspective. It was really nice to see him so happy.”

Stephens said, “I wrote the letter to have [Coulter] come see an Olympic event and have her heart changed.”

Although Coulter never apologized for calling President Obama the “R word,” Stephens still felt strongly about explaining how it feels to be called “retarded.”  “It hurts; when you are called names, it hurts.  Being called the “R word” hurts just as much as being called regular names.”

Special education teacher Danielle Poirier said, “I think that everyone in that room [left] with something positive and something they can share and pass on.”

John Franklin Stephens’ message to all students is to “keep thinking, be smart, stay in school and be sure to live unified!”