Photo Creator: Chuck Kennedy | Credit: The White House
Advocate, actor and writer Frank Stephens follows a very simple philosophy about living with Down syndrome: “Just be a rockstar.”
Once, at school, a bully cornered Frank Stephens to ridicule his Down syndrome with taunts and name-calling. Out of nowhere came Frank’s five-year-old brother, ablaze with the injustice of it. Frank’s little brother stepped between them, intimidating the bully into backing off with the sheer force of his anger and a well-phrased threat.
“Maybe that wasn’t the best way to handle it,” laughs Frank, “but I knew my little brother had my back.”
The feeling of empowerment that comes from knowing someone is willing to put themselves on the line to stand up for you—well, that feeling motivated the purpose of Frank’s life. Frank, who has a gift for communicating truth and compassion, knew that he wanted to stand up and speak out for other people with Down syndrome.
As an adult, Frank would get his chance to face down a bully while the nation watched.
In 2012, during the presidential debates between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, shock-personality Ann Coulter live tweeted a disability slur against President Obama. “The ‘r-word,’ is not just derogatory,” Frank says. “It’s a hateful word. It is not okay to use it.”
So, seemingly out of nowhere and ablaze with the injustice of it, Frank penned a thoughtful, honest, and compassionate open letter to Coulter that was published on the Special Olympics website. The letter’s no-holds-barred conclusion—you assumed you could get away with it … well, you, and society, need to learn that being compared to people like me should be a badge of honor—drew the attention of The Washington Post.
“I want to tell kids who have Down syndrome: you can do anything.”
The Post published Frank’s letter, the letter went viral, and Frank launched into his life’s work of advocating for people with Down syndrome. His compelling arguments have won staggering funding awards for Down syndrome research. He serves as a subject matter expert on television; Frank has testified before Congress, and views of his speeches on YouTube are off the charts.
“It feels great to me to help people understand that there are topics around Down syndrome that need to be opened up,” Frank says. “Everyone has something to say, but not everyone can speak in public. I like to think that I speak for people [who want to be heard].”
Frank’s public appearances landed him roles in television and film, and the advocate recently signed with a Hollywood agency. He decided he wanted to write a screenplay about a character with Down syndrome coming to terms with his identity. So, he did.
“I want to tell kids who have Down syndrome: you can do anything,” he says. “The whole world is opening up for you. Pursue your dreams, whatever they are.”
An Unusually Powerful Source of Happiness
“A Harvard study shows that people with Down syndrome are an unusually powerful source of happiness,” Frank says, his face alight. “Also, parents and siblings of people with Down syndrome are happier than the rest of society. For any parent who will have a child with Down syndrome, that child will bring you a whole new level of happiness. Enjoy the ride.”
Frank Stephens loves his life, other people, his family; He loves love. Spending just three minutes with him, whether in person or through watching any of his acting work or advocacy speeches, really does bring a whole new level of happiness to life. “As my dad would say,” Frank mentions of his approach to living, “Just be a rock star.”
If Frank is being a rock star, we put him at Jimi-Hendrix-level cool. Keep on rockin’, Frank. You are a superstar.