On Oct. 7, Lauren Potter spoke to the Mercyhurst community as part of Mercyhurst Student Government’s 2019 Speaker Series in the Mary D’Angelo Performing Arts Center. Potter, an actress and activist, is best known for playing Becky Jackson on the FOX television series “Glee.”
Since then, she has appeared in NBC’s “Chicago Med,” HBO’s “Veep,” Freeform’s “Switched at Birth” and Comedy Central’s “Drunk History.” In addition, she has dedicated much of her life to advocating for the rights of individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities.
Potter began her speech by noting the fact that she has Down Syndrome, though she was quick to prove that this never stopped her from achieving her goals. Potter knew she wanted to be a performer from a very young age, though she was unable to walk until the age of two and was told her disability would hinder her.
She pursued dance lessons at the age of three with the support of her family and instructors who helped her succeed on the stage.
At sixteen, Potter was cast in the movie, “Mr. Blue Sky” and was selected shortly after for the role of Becky Jackson, a spunky cheerleader, on “Glee.” She expressed how excited she had been to play a cheerleader, an activity she had always wanted to pursue in high school but was denied because of her disability.
Aside from her movie and television appearances, Potter spoke about her experiences in advocating for the rights of others, both with and without disabilities. She has been an Ambassador of the Special Olympics, spent three years on the National Board of Buddies, and was appointed to the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities as an advisor to the White House by President Obama in 2011. She also was a partner in establishing the “Not Special Needs” campaign in 2017.
Each of these positions have allowed Potter to encourage others with disabilities to pursue their passions and achieve their goals. In addition, she has shown how important it is to include diverse perspectives in conversations about disability, especially those with first-hand experience of living with various disabilities.
Potter then spoke on some of her most influential work: her anti-bullying advocacy and outreach programs. She recounted the different forms of bullying she faced from physical abuse as a child to cyber-bullying on social media as a teenager.
Additionally, she mentioned how current leaders and influential role models normalize bullying and perpetuate stereotypes. Through the PSA campaign, “Stop Using the R-Word,” Potter partnered with fellow “Glee” actress, Jane Lynch in combating the usage of offensive slurs like “retard” and acts of bullying that hurt individuals with disabilities.
Throughout much of her speech, Potter emphasized the importance of support systems, especially within families and communities, for children with disabilities. She spoke passionately about the gratitude she has for her parents, other family members and those in her community who saw her value and encouraged her to pursue her passions regardless of what society told her.
Finally, Potter called for a shift in the national conversation surrounding the topic of disability and emphasized how those without disabilities, especially those in powerful positions, can change how we approach and act on the topic. Between two separate standing ovations, Potter answered questions from the audience.
She offered answers to questions which ranged from the advice she would give to the parents and community members of children with Down Syndrome (be brave, encouraging, and proud) to who her celebrity crush is (John Stamos).