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Special Olympian speaks about discrimination

Anna Boarini | Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Special Olympian Loretta Claiborne encouraged an appreciation of every person’s identity, and especially those of the disabled, Tuesday evening in DeBartolo Hall.

“It doesn’t matter to me how you identify me,” Claiborne said. “It matters to me how the man above identifies me. When I go out into my community, I just want to be my best.”

Claiborne was born partially blind and could not walk or talk until age four. Today, she is a recipient of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award presented at the Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly (ESPY) awards ceremony, and is also the subject of a Disney movie titled “The Loretta Claiborne Story.”

Before she was an athlete and public speaker, Claiborne said she overcame adversity in school. She dealt with prejudice, even from teachers, because she is mildly intellectually disabled.

“My teacher called me a retard, and that is a word that should never be used,” Claiborne said.

Claiborne said her mother’s encouragement helped her get through hardships in school.

“She always wanted me to be my best,” Claiborne said.

Even when Claiborne’s school district wanted her to be sent to a mental health facility and school, Claiborne said her mother insisted her daughter receive an education from the Newark community schools. Claiborne said her mother insisted that as long there was a special education class available, her daughter would not be pulled from the school district. Her mother’s goal was that all of her children, Claiborne included, would graduate from high school.

To help ease her stress and get rid of her extra energy, Claiborne began to run at night with her brother. She learned about the Special Olympics in school, and she said her mother motivated her to compete.

“At that time, Special Olympics helped to change kids’ attitudes, ” Claiborne said. “I thought I was worthless, not worth one cent. Here was something that was changing my life, something plain and simple called sport.”

With the help of the discipline and positive attitude Claiborne gained from the Special Olympics, she graduated from high school.

Years later, Claiborne has run 26 marathons and competes in three different Special Olympic sports.

She was inducted into both the Special Olympics Hall of Fame and the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.

After her mother’s death in 1994, Claiborne said she turned to her friends from the Special Olympics for support.

“When my mother died, I was lonely,” Claiborne said. ” I had God, who is my strength, and I had Special Olympics, which is my joy.”

Even though Claiborne now serves on the board for Special Olympics International, she said she still deals with prejudice against her identity as an intellectually challenged person.

People often stereotype the physical appearance of intellectual disabled individuals, she said.

“Intellectual disabilities are the most prevalent disabilities,” Claiborne said. ” You can’t put a face on it, because it affects all types of people.”

Claiborne said she wants to end the discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities and encourages others to do so as well.

“You are now the soldiers of a new war for people with intellectual disability,” said Claiborne.