Haley Waggoner: The Power of Language and Advocacy

Hello everyone!  My name is Haley Waggoner and I am 31 years old.  I live in Lincoln, Nebraska, and I can proudly say that I am a gold medal winner in tennis from the 2018 USA Special Olympic Games.  This upcoming summer, I look forward to attending and competing in the 2022 USA Special Olympic Games in Orlando, Florida, and I can’t wait to make amazing memories in the presence of both my family and friends.  In addition to playing tennis in the Special Olympics, I enjoy competing in soccer, golf, and I plan to try basketball again this year.  When I am not playing sports for Special Olympics, you can find me hanging out with friends or baking, both at home and at my job, where I work for the Hy-Vee grocery store bakery. 

I am proud to speak about many of the Committees and Councils that I actively participate in, ones in which we advocate for Special Olympics athletes.  Currently, I serve on two Special Olympics committees, the Special Olympics USA Games Athlete Leadership Council and the Nebraska Special Olympics Athlete Input Council.  Within both of these groups, athletes are encouraged to give input and delegate with leaders to improve the Games, both statewide and at a national level.  I am the Chair of the USA Games council, and our motto is “Athlete-driven” – we strive to give ALL athletes the opportunity to speak and have a voice.  Through my involvement in both of these Councils, the other athletes and I are able to have a say in making the Games the best they can be.

Haley wearing pink sweater holding bill in Nebraska legislationAside from my active participation within Special Olympics committees, I have also worked in the past with my Nebraska State government in two different committees.  I have since retired from the Nebraska Youth Leadership Council and the Nebraska Developmental Disabilities Council after serving two terms.  Within the Youth Leadership Council, my peers and I helped not only each other, but all individuals with disabilities transition into higher-level education and/or the workplace.  The focus of this Council was to help young adults advocate for themselves as they moved into the next part of their lives.  On the Developmental Disabilities Council, my peers and I collaborated to pass bills and write grants to better advocate for individuals with disabilities.  One of my proudest moments was working with Nebraska Senator Colby Coash in 2013; together, we developed a bill to eliminate the “R” word from state statutes and change the wording to “intellectual disability”.  This was a pivotal and necessary step towards change in not only Nebraska, but for the entire nation.

Just as the state of Nebraska eliminated the “R” word from state documents, my aspiration is to remove the term “special needs” from our terminology and replace it with “individuals with disabilities”.  Why?  Because we are not “special”, we are more than just “special”, we are human.  “Special needs” is a fictional and meaningless term that was born out of ableism, which favors those who don’t have disabilities.  Ableism’s desire is to make accessibility and inclusion abnormal and rare, and my objective is to change this narrative for all individuals with disabilities.  This change will not be instant, however, it can be made possible with an emphasis on the collective change in daily language.

You may be asking yourself: How can I be involved in advocating for eliminating “special needs” from our language?  Well, there are several ways!  First and foremost, I encourage everyone to take a first step towards advocacy in our day-to-day conversations.  You can correct others if they use the wrong terminology when referencing someone with disabilities, and you can also educate them on the importance of changing their language.  Additionally, we can advocate for language changes at a higher level, like within state or federal legislation.  I motivate all who are able to send an email, make a phone call, or find an alternative method to communicate with our legislature to help contribute to major changes.  Each and every attempt to reach out to our government means that we are one step closer to writing new bills, or even changing the language in our public education system, which would have an enormous impact on generations to come.

Black and white photo of Haley smiling looking off screenFinally, and one that I feel very strongly about, is advocating for change over the world’s most growing influence, SOCIAL MEDIA!  Gaining inspiration from popular Instagram accounts such as “@Ableismistrash” and “@DisabilityReframed”, I have taken to my own social media as a way to educate and inspire change in our world.  Whether it is a simple “like” or even reposting content, social media allows movements to spread faster than any other forms of communication.  I hope that all of you can visit and interact with one of these two well-known accounts, or even follow my own “@HKWaggoner”.  Known as a form of “digital advocacy”, there are so many resources and opportunities to change the terminology of “special needs” to “disabilities” over several social media outlets.

I hope that this blog post has educated and motivated all of you and helped you to understand that change needs to happen.  I look forward to interacting with you further over social media and I will hopefully see some of you in Orlando this summer.  Thanks for reading!