You may have seen the Disney made-for-TV movie The Loretta Claiborne Story, in which a partially blind, African-American woman with an intellectual disability growing up in a poor, single-parent family became a successful marathon runner and eventual winner of the 1996 ESPN “ESPY Arthur Ashe Award for Courage.”
If you missed the movie, you’ll learn more about Claiborne the next two weeks here.
After speaking at the recent Ruderman Inclusion Summit, 62-year-old Loretta Claiborne of York, Pennsylvania, said, “I didn’t walk until age 4. I was held back the first three years of school. My school experience was hell. What happens as a young kid impacts what you will do later in life and I was the kid that was always picked on.”
Outside school, people also treated her differently. For example, while at the dentist’s office with her sisters, her dentist refused to clean her teeth because he didn’t “do the retarded kids.” She had to visit a different clinic.
She said, “I became an angry child. I felt excluded. I was one of those kids no one wanted anything to do with. At one point, they were going to send me to an institution. But my mom was always fighting for me. She told them, ‘You’re going to educate Loretta.’ Her dream for me was to graduate from high school and, in doing it, not have some certificate saying I had (only) attended. Mom wanted me to have a diploma saying I had completed my high school studies.”
She began running at 12 with her brother, Hank, and used it as medicine to quell her anger, she said. In the late 1960s, she became involved with Special Olympics. At first, she believed the organization probably wouldn’t accept her because she was a “retard.” All her life, she had wanted to be either a nurse, vet, or an athlete. She settled on the latter.
She said, “When I first did (Special Olympics), I was ready to quit. My mother said, ‘No you don’t. If you start quitting, you will always quit. This was a turning point. I always thought I would end up in someone’s prison or an institution.”
As a runner, she eventually completed more than 25 marathons, including twice finishing among the top 100 of all women running the legendary Boston Marathon. Next week, Claiborne offers strong advice for people with disabilities.