York Daily Record/Sunday News
Hannah Cunningham stood in front of Lauren Piersol's fourth-grade classroom Tuesday morning to deliver a message.
It's a message the 11-year-old from Manchester Township had already shared with her fifth-grade classmates at Sinking Springs Elementary School, and one she hopes to share with all the school's students, one classroom at a time.
"My name is Hannah, and I have a little sister with Down syndrome," Hannah told the boys and girls in the Central York district class, her voice clear and direct. Down syndrome means a person has an extra chromosome, Hannah explained. It doesn't mean that person is retarded, she said.
"Retarded" is not a good way to describe someone, Hannah continued. "It definitely makes me sad" when someone uses the "R-word."
"It doesn't just hurt me, but the rest of my family," Hannah said.
Hannah said she heard some children at Sinking Springs using the R-word when she was in fourth grade. Then she heard people in public places, like the grocery store. She talked to her mom after going to a Down syndrome convention over the summer, and decided she could do something to spread awareness.
Hannah talked to her guidance counselor, Julie Carson, and to the school's principal, Joel Gugino, and she got approval to talk to her classmates.
The words "retard" and "retarded" were once accepted medical terms. But, Harlow Flory, the executive director of The Arc of York County, said it has become a derogatory term.
"The use of the term retardation is not a good thing because people will use it in a way that puts the individual down," Flory said. "We've all heard it, and there are lots of people who use the word."
Hannah knows some people aren't aware that the "R-word" is hurtful.
But the pain the word causes is personal, because her sister, Leah, may be different, but she's not worth less than others.
"I love her a lot," Hannah said. "It's impossible to describe."
Not unlike most children her age, Leah loves to paint, she loves ice cream, and she plays several sports, Hannah said.
Leah is a little different, though.
Sometimes it takes Leah longer to learn something, doctors say she will always have low muscle tone, and she recently got hearing aids. Many people with Down syndrome have problems with their hearing and their eyesight, Hannah explained.
Although Hannah knows how smart and capable Leah is, she worries her little sister will be teased for being different.
Krista Cunningham, the girls' mother, worries, too.
"We love Leah so much and she works so hard to try and be typical and try to fit in and be just one of the kids," Cunningham said. But she knows it's only a matter of time before Leah gets hurt.
"Because of all of her therapies, Leah reads, she writes and she knows," Cunningham said. "She will know. The day that she hears that (the R-word) will be one of my hardest days."
But Hannah makes it easier.
"Leah is so blessed to have Hannah as her sister," Cunningham said. "As a parent, it just makes me feel so blessed to have Hannah."
Hannah feels the same way about Leah.
"She's definitely an amazing little girl," Hannah said.
Gugino, the Sinking Springs principal, said the same thing about Hannah.
"She is doing this out of a genuine love in her heart," he said. "I think (the other students) are really listening to her."
Information from: York Daily Record, http://www.ydr.com