Naperville autistic student fights to end 'R word'
Jordan Schubert stands before a crowd of 300 swimmers who have been joined by their coaches and families for a Special Olympics swim meet at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville.
Jordan takes the microphone, smiles and welcomes the crowd. His voice is steady, his words are clear. He has presence.
He belies every stereotype you may have heard about the autistic.
Jordan and a classmate lead the crowd through the opening ceremonies, ending with the Special Olympics oath: "Let me win, and if I cannot, let me be brave in the attempt!"
The oath could be a mantra for the way Jordan, 17, lives his life. Being autistic, he says, "can be tough ... You have two choices. You can use it as an excuse to take the easy way out or you can choose to work even harder. I choose the second one."
Diagnosed at age 2, Jordan found sports early in life. He played baseball, basketball and soccer. He was a fan of NASCAR, the Bulls and the Bears.
Kim Pehlke, his basketball coach of eight years, described him as a hothead in his early years but said he has matured.
"People look to him for advice and guidance," Pehlke said. "I think he is definitely seen as a leader and definitely as someone who everyone aspires to be like."
That change, Jordan said, started when his sixth-grade basketball team won a Special Olympics gold medal. "I never saw anything nicer before," he said. "Ever since I got my first gold medal, I knew I could do anything. It's given me my positive attitude."
That and his public speaking skills are pushing him to make a difference in the world. Jordan and his Special Olympics co-host Andy Marsh have been working together since last summer when they represented Illinois at a Special Olympics youth summit in Nebraska. Two young people from each state -- one with and one without disabilities -- were paired to discuss social activism.
"His friendship has changed me," Andy said. "It's made me more accepting of others."
The two friends were behind the creation last fall of a pilot soccer league in Indian Prairie Unit District 204 that teamed up disabled and nondisabled students. They also started speaking to groups as part of the Special Olympics campaign to end the use of the "R-word."
Jordan isn't surprised the word is part of the everyday language of his peers. Back in middle school, anything or anyone stupid was "retarded."
"I actually didn't know it was offensive until I got to high school," Jordan said. "I knew what it meant, but I didn't know that it was hurtful to those with disabilities, and I have one."
Jordan is like most other teens. He has a car, went over the phone-plan limit the first time he started texting, loves pizza, watches sports or plays video games with his friends, studies a couple of hours a night and often has sports practice after school. And, of course, he cheers on his friends, like those in the Special Olympics meet.
"When you're autistic it is hard to socialize sometimes," Jordan said. "You might not always make eye contact and you have trouble reading body language, but I don't let it get in the way of anything."
For anyone disabled, hearing the R-word is offensive. "I don't like it," said Andy Pyhala, a senior at Neuqua who plays basketball with Jordan.
"I feel like they hate me or something. That's why I don't share my disability with them."
Junior Trevor Szymanski says even casual use of the word is wrong. "It's a word like any other word in the dictionary -- but it stands out and we're trying to make it stop," he said.
When Jordan makes his way through the halls at Neuqua, he may high-five a friend or joke around with his gym teacher, but his ears perk up when he hears the R-word as a parent's would with a profanity. He uses those moments to educate.
"They just don't realize that 'retarded' is short for a disability that affects a lot of people," Jordan said. "Some people totally ignore me, but most people understand and realize it is offensive."
He is able to shrug off those who don't get it. When a Neuqua freshman responded to an R-word presentation by saying, "Well, that's retarded," Jordan just realigned his pitch a bit: He decided to speak to kids in younger grades before the word became part of their vocabulary.
District 204's Special Olympics Coordinator Joy Pierson Nebergall has been impressed by all Jordan and Andy have accomplished.
"They've been nonstop and have overachieved their goals," she said.
Beside his good works, Jordan has changed some perceptions. Take his ease on camera. Because autism and public speaking don't usually go together, the broadcast journalism department was a little concerned when Jordan signed up to take a class.
"We didn't want students to make fun of him," instructor Lisa Traut said.
"We thought we'd give it a try, and allowed him to produce stories in his comfort zone."
Now, Jordan does stand-up reports on the Neuqua Replay sports program and works on other stories for the Wildcat Weekly news program.
"Students in there don't see him as having a disability at all," Traut said. "In fact, I think even around the school, students don't view Jordan as having a disability."
Coincidentally, Jordan's campaign to quash the R-word comes as the Illinois General Assembly takes a step into the 21st century. Last week the Senate unanimously approved replacing in state statutes such phrases as "mental retardation" with "intellectual disability" and "crippled" with "physically disabled." The bill, sponsored by Sen. Matt Murphy of Palatine, is pending in the House.
Fluent in Spanish, Jordan Schubert's dream is to become a special needs teacher for foreign language students. He'll be attending West Chester University in Pennsylvania this fall but first will represent the U.S. at the Special Olympics World Games Youth Activation Summit in Greece this summer.
His teachers know he'll continue to be an advocate for the disabled. In fact, Jordan already has plans to campaign against the R-word in college.
"The thing about Jordan is that he's very aware of what he's capable of, but he doesn't limit himself," said his coach Pehlke. "He always continues to reach beyond what any of us think is possible for him."