Group educates community about people with disabilities

Mar. 26, 2014 @ 10:25 AM

When not keeping busy as a college student, one can find Anna Ollinger, a senior linguistics major at UNC-Chapel Hill, chatting, shopping, baking, going to the movies or grabbing lunch with her happy, go-lucky “best buddy” Molly.

“[Molly] is just such a joy to be around,” Ollinger said. “It’s great. She always calls me up for no reason – just to check up on me or see what’s up. I absolutely love spending time with her.”
The pair, matched as one another’s “best buddy” for the 2013-2014 school year, met four years ago through the UNC chapter of Best Buddies, a nationwide organization that pairs students with adults in the community who have intellectual and developmental disabilities. The organization aims to raise disability awareness and to foster one-on-one friendships between students and community members with disabilities through a variety of activities.
As members of UNC’s chapter of Best Buddies, Anna, Molly and 120 other UNC students and their buddies go to monthly club events, such as the annual Valentine’s Day dance, March Madness viewing parties and UNC football games.
“Molly is the definition of a social butterfly, so going with her to these events is crazy,” said Ollinger, who is UNC’s Best Buddies president. “I have a hard time keeping track of where she is because she’s constantly running around talking to everyone.”
The students and their buddies also correspond once per week and spend individual time together at least once per month.
Olinger has been a member of Best Buddies for eight years. She got involved during her freshman year of high school through a friend’s sister who has disabilities. She developed a passion for working with the intellectually and developmentally disabled early into her membership with the organization.
“I really fell in love with the program … and volunteering with people with disabilities,” Ollinger said. “I just kind of found my niche there.
“I feel like I’ve learned a lot working with the program for the past eight years, and the relationships I’ve made with each of my buddies, including Molly, have been really wonderful and shown me what it means to be a genuine, sincere and caring friend.”
As the president of the club, Ollinger helped Best Buddies kick off its second annual “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign, which is a national campaign that hopes to end the pejorative use of the words “retard” and “retarded,” Monday.
“It’s time we stop using [these words] because…[they] affect our perceptions and our views of those around us,” Ollinger said. “Eliminating the ‘r-word’ will help make society more inclusive of people with disabilities, like Molly.”
Ollinger said that Molly is one of the hardest working people she knows. In fact, Molly works two jobs, which is part of the reason why Ollinger is putting so much effort into this campaign. Ollinger feels that if she “spreads the word to end the word” she can help change “negative and false stereotypes about people with disabilities” and encourage people to “focus on [Molly’s] abilities rather than her disability.”
“Words are powerful. They shape the way … we treat those around us,” Elizabeth Schroeder, a member of Best Buddies, said. “Eliminating the word ‘retarded’ from our vocabulary is essential for society to see people with disabilities as capable of living full and rewarding lives.”
To try to increase awareness of the issue, the club has posted fliers throughout campus and will pass out T-shirts and buttons during the week, Schroeder said. Club members have also changed their Facebook profile pictures to a photograph of themselves holding a flier, which explains why they pledged to raise awareness about the campaign.
Additionally, Best Buddies has invited RJ Mitte, the actor with cerebral palsy who played Walter Jr. on “Breaking Bad,” to give a presentation April 3 to the UNC community about turning his disability into one of his strengths and about his experience as an actor with a disability.
Throughout this week, the club will try to engage as many students as possible by standing in the most highly trafficked area of UNC’s campus, the Pit, and asking people to sign “spread the word” banners as a personal pledge to stop using derogatory language about people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Schroeder said.
“I think that this campaign is really important because disability rights and advocacy on Carolina’s campus is an issue that’s often not discussed,” Ollinger said. “Opening up conversation about this issue and the disability rights movement is definitely something that needs to happen – it can make a big difference in everyone’s lives.”