Jill Erin Eglé of New Orleans wants to change the world.
As an advocate and self-advocate, she’s doing it by getting states to write bills that eliminate the word, “retarded,” from their written documentation, or laws.
So far, the 38-year-old’s work has influenced both Virginia in 2007 and Louisiana in 2014.
She was also instrumental in helping pass Rosa’s Bill, a law that also eliminated the “r word” from federal statutes. It was passed by the United States Senate and House and later signed by President Barack Obama in 2010.
Jill even attended the signing ceremony at the White House.
But before Jill found her purpose in life she said she wasn’t the same person as she is today.
“I wasn’t always so self-confident and fearless,” she said. “In fact, growing up I was anything but that way.”
At an early age, Jill was diagnosed with a mild intellectual disability.
“So it wasn’t long after that label was put on me, that people started referring to me as retard or called me retarded,” she said.
She recalls how hurt she felt when people treated her as a lesser person and called her by the “r word.”
“I was made fun of, laughed at and had no true friends, all because I had a low IQ and didn’t grasp things as quickly as normal people do.”
And things didn’t get any easier after high school as she was looking for the right job.
“After high school, trying to find a steady job proved difficult, but I wanted one, like other young people,” Jill said. “I wanted a laptop, be able to go to Starbucks and be cool like others were. But I couldn’t keep a job because placement agencies kept putting me in jobs I wasn’t suited for.”
But Jill didn’t give up. Her family wouldn’t let her give up either, including her “first family” – Mom, Dad and brothers – and her “second mom, soul mate, dearest friend, mentor and bud” – Nancy Mercer.
Her luck changed after she went to work for the Arc of Northern Virginia, first as a volunteer, then a receptionist and then a spokesperson at the Virginia legislature.
“The director at the time, Nancy Mercer, saw some abilities in me,” Jill said.
Jill’s “excellent” verbal skills made her a great candidate to testify as a self-advocate at the Virginia legislature.
“Wow, what a life change in a short period of time! From a young woman who had a very poor self-image with no direction to a powerful self-advocate and I/DD leader,” Jill said.
The rest is history.
Now, Jill says eliminating the “r word” from state and federal statues is only the beginning of removing it from society.
She recognizes peoples’ use of the “r word” as belittling when people use it to name a person.
“As a society, we are becoming more sensitive and learning that hurtful words like “retarded” have no place in our vocabulary,” she said. “That is hurtful and should be changed.”
Making a difference
Jill moved from Virginia to Louisiana in 2011. Although she’s no longer supported by The Arc in Virgina, she continues to promote herself as a self-advocate and leader in Louisiana.
Jill was invited to both Tulane University in New Orleans and Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge to tell her story to educators and students, so they can understand how to help people with I/DD.
In addition, Jill often visits elementary and middle schools, spreading her message about inclusion, anti bullying and treating people with love and respect.
“The greatest joy in my life today is to touch the lives of young children with I/DD and tell them how much I love them and assure them of happiness in their future,” she said. “I can see the smiles and joy on their young faces and also their parent’s faces as well. Those moments feed my passion and drive my desire to make it a life-long mission!”
If you’d like to read more about Jill, be sure to check out her biography, Jill’s Journey. Written by Ladonna Eisenbaum, the book chronicles Jill’s life from diagnosis to the job market.
“It describes how I overcame trials and tribulations and never gave up,” Jill said. “And like many good books, [it] has a very happy ending.”
Remove the “r word” from your vocabulary
Jill gives these tips:
- Don’t ever use it – even when joking. If you use it, others will think it’s OK, and they will use it too.
- Whenever you hear someone use the word, explain how personally you take it because it’s so hurtful.
- Speak to your state legislators about removing the “r word” from all statutes in your state.