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Sleepy Hollow High School Spreads the Word to End the Word

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May 7, 2015

Loretta Claiborne
Loretta Claiborne

|  by Zoe Kaplan  |  

On April 21, students at Sleepy Hollow High School celebrated “Spread the Word to End the Word” –  a campaign that focuses on removing the R-word (retarded) from everyday vocabulary. While the R-word used to be medically sound, in recent years it has developed a negative connotation.

In order to promote this campaign, students from the Sleepy Hollow Academy of Disabled Education (SHADE) program sat by the main office with a bright yellow banner. This banner stated “Spread the Word to End the Word,” and by the end of the day, it had hundreds of student signatures, signifying personal pledges to stop using the R-word. Up and down the hallways students could be seen wearing small labels that read “Disable the Label”.

Sleepy Hollow has always been a place that cherishes the spirit of these types of days. The SHADE program involves both students with intellectual disabilities and those without; high school students work with those who have intellectual disabilities while gaining service work and leadership skills. In turn, the students with disabilities get the opportunity to socialize with their peers and get involved in school-based special activities, specifically sports. Unified sports, played with members with intellectual disabilities, have been a great success at the high school. In fact, Sleepy Hollow High School has twice hosted the Special Olympics, a sporting event for teams with intellectual disabilities.

This year, Sleepy Hollow was selected to send a team to the Special Olympics World Games, the largest sporting event in the world in 2015. Felix Velox and Min Li (Special Olympians) and Hunter Burnett and Brendan Murphy (partners), along with Kim Kaczmarek (head coach), will participate this July and August.

The event brings something new to the table this year: a Special Olympics Unified Relay Across America. There are three paths on which torches will be carried across the country in half-mile increments, all the way from Washington, D.C., to L.A., California. On June 3, the torch will make its way through Tarrytown right in front of Sleepy Hollow High School. Both the Sleepy Hollow High School World Games Team and Project YOU students (also from Sleepy Hollow High School) will be doing a leg.

In order to make this a community-wide event, community members can help fund the teams, as well as make June 3 a day to come out and cheer on the athletes as they bring the torch through Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow.

Not only does Sleepy Hollow have the opportunity to send athletes into the Special Olympics World Games, but also the school had the opportunity to meet and listen to a world-famous Special Olympics athlete. Loretta Claiborne (world-class runner and motivational speaker who has an intellectual disability) helped Sleepy Hollow celebrate “Spread the Word to End the Word” day with special assemblies in which she shared her story.

Claiborne was born partially blind and with intellectual disabilities into a family of seven children and a single mother. Despite large odds, she has grown into an accomplished, inspirational, and strong woman. Claiborne speaks four languages and is fluent in American Sign Language; she has earned a fourth degree black belt in karate and has run 26 marathons, with her best time being 3:03. From meeting Presidents to being the inspiration of a Walt Disney movie, Claiborne has really done it all. However, all of her accomplishments weren’t what impressed the students most. Instead, it was her eloquence as she taught them lessons they’ll never forget.

After asking if there were any large football players in the crowd and asking one to come forward, Claiborne surprised the audience by asking the young man to slap himself on his arm. The point wasn’t to have the student abuse himself; it showed how the phrase “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” wasn’t really true. While the student’s arm would feel better and normal in a few minutes, names Claiborne had been called as a child still stuck with her. “Your mouth is your worst weapon on your body. Think before you speak,” Claiborne advised the audience.

“Spread the Word to End the Word” is more than about ending the use of the R-word. It’s about thinking of those with intellectual disabilities as equals. When asked what her greatest challenge was, Claiborne responded by saying how she still deals with a lack of respect. She, like almost all individuals with intellectual disabilities, wants others to accept her as a person. “We all have the possibility to become disabled at some time in our life…think about somebody else before you think of yourself,” she explained.

Although Sleepy Hollow is already renowned as a place of inclusiveness, Claiborne had a great impact on all of the students.  Not only will they spread the word to end the word, but they’ll also think twice before treating others with disrespect, intellectual disabilities or not.

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