Frank Stephens has been preparing for his moment on the public stage for about 24 years.
From the time the 6-year-old talky Fairfax kid volunteered to join a group of other intellectually disabled children on an equestrian team, he has been challenging his own limitations and the expectations of others.
“I might seem like I’m bragging, but he just amazes me,” his mother Cornelia Stephens told me last night, after a day spent juggling e-mails and phone calls about Frank’s latest crusade.
Frank Stephens, 30, is the author of the now celebrated open letter to Ann Coulter, explaining in a measured tone why using the “r” word is hurtful to those with intellectual difficulties.
“I want to get people like Ms. Coulter to know that using the “r” word as an insult is calling people like me slow, shallow and stupid,” he said last night.
The letter has set off a chain reaction on social media among Stephens’s supporters who are calling on Coulter to apologize for her recent use of the word “retarded” to describe her political opponents, including President Obama.
After the Monday night presidential debate, she called Obama a “retard” in a tweet. That came after she had already been asked publicly to apologize for use of the “r” word by the father of a Down syndrome child.
As of now, Coulter has responded to the general uproar by repeating the term. She has yet to respond to Stephens, who signed his letter as “a friend you haven’t made yet.”
Stephens doesn’t necessarily want Coulter to apologize. He wants her to understand.
“I decided to see if I could change her heart. When she uses the ‘r” word, it’s hateful and mean. I know she’s not hateful and mean,” he said, though he said he had never heard of her before his mother showed him her tweet the other day.
“But she has to know how that makes people like me feel.”
So, Stephens found himself this week working with his father to craft a letter to her. He had written about the issue previously for the Special Olympics, when the movie Tropic Thunder tried to mine humor from a running “retard” joke.
When I asked Stephens how Coulter could make things better in this case, he responded with immediate enthusiasm: “By coming to the Special Olympics to see what we can do.”
It was also through the Special Olympics that Stephens’s letter first surfaced publicly as the group published it on its Web site. He’s a vocal supporter and frequent speaker for the Special Olympics..
Stephens competes in basketball, track and baseball among other sports — competitions that he says, “make me feel great.”
His mother said Stephens has always been a “people person” who loved to talk. He honed his public presence in drama club at Chantilly High School, where advisers cast him in a constant stream of plays. His mother said they sometimes wrote in parts just for him.
Stephens now lives at home with his parents in Fairfax and works at a bakery in Chantilly.
It just so happened he missed his bus to work on Wednesday, the day his letter went viral. So, he was at home when he and his mother were inundated with calls and e-mails.
After a long evening of fielding those calls from friends, neighbors and reporters, many of whom told him how far and wide his letter has traveled, I asked him how he felt. Was he proud of himself?
“I am,” he said, emphasizing the second word, as if this time he may have even surprised himself.
“This is impressive.”