Hannah Roehrig is a senior at Brillion High School and the president of their Unified Champion School program. She is a leader in the Inclusion Revolution in schools in Wisconsin and earlier this month she traveled to Washington, DC with the Special Olympics Wisconsin delegation for Capitol Hill Day. Roehrig and the delegation challenged and invited elected officials to partner with them to achieve the goals of expanding Special Olympics Unified Sports and Unified Champion Schools programming, and to end health care disparities and discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities in America by supporting inclusive health initiatives. With Spread the Word to End the Word Day coming up on March 7, Roehrig recently wrote about what inclusion and the elimination of the R-word mean to her. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
By Hannah Roehrig
“Be brave in the attempt.” Before every Special Olympics sporting event the athletes say this motto, meaning that no matter how they perform that day they gave an attempt and they were brave while doing so. But this motto is not only for sports, this motto is for everything and for everyone. For me, my attempt is making inclusion not only second nature to my school and community, but to my country and my world.
My attempt started my freshman year of high school when I was given the opportunity to help make my school a Unified Champion School. I knew that I wanted to work with individuals that have intellectual disabilities and individuals with autism since I was a little girl, but when I walked into the special education classroom the first time my freshman year, I had no idea what was awaiting me in my next four years of high school. Before my school was a Unified Champion School, the students with intellectual disabilities would oftentimes eat in the classroom during lunch, walk by themselves in the hallways, and have no one to be partners with in class. Now just four years later not one of them eats lunch in the classroom, not one of them walks down the halls by themselves, and not one of them ever has to worry about finding a partner in class. But my attempt is not over.
I hear the “R-word” a minimum of four times a day. My peers have learned not to say it around me, and if it slips they say “Oops, I forgot you were in the room.” When I hear the “R-word,” shivers immediately go through my body and I become defensive, because if they only knew how it made individuals with intellectual disabilities feel, they would never say it again. Getting people to understand why the “R-word” is so bad is difficult. In my school the way my Unified Champion School partners and I are trying to teach people is by making Spread the Word to End the Word week a week of educating our peers on respect. Last year I made a video with people that have family members with intellectual disabilities tell us about their family members’ abilities and not their disabilities, because that’s what people should know them for. We also had students and teachers from my school pledge to not say the “R-word.” The video showed that we should take a stand and spread the word.
Recently I had the opportunity to go to Washington, DC for Capitol Hill Day, and while I was there one of the athletes that was with me on the trip told me, “When I was in school I was the kid that sat by myself because I had intellectual disabilities and nobody believed in me. I wish that there was somebody like you when I went to school. Thank you for everything you are doing Hannah.” When he said this I remembered why I decided to start my attempt in the first place, because people with intellectual disabilities are just like you and me. They are more actually, they are brave, they are smart, and they deserve to be treated with respect.
How can you become a leader in movement of inclusion? There are 2,238 schools in the state of Wisconsin and only 50 are Unified Champion Schools. To help make this movement a reality you can begin your attempt by helping to make your school a Unified Champion School. But the answer to inclusion is much simpler than that. The answer is, you find your attempt and be brave.
Spread the Word to End the Word and support inclusion by signing the pledge.