End the Word

I’m tired of tiptoeing around it. I’m tired of pretending like it doesn’t matter. I’m tired of living in a society that treats its most innocent like rubbish. It has to stop.

I know I’m being dramatic. I can’t help it. We all get ferocious when it comes to our kids and how they’re treated by others. When our kids get bullied or teased by their schoolmates, our claws come out. When they get treated like second class citizens by teachers or other adults they come in contact with, we fight back. But imagine if everyone who came in contact with your child viewed them as inferior. As a child. As a teenager. As an adult. At best, they’re treated like they can’t understand anything and perhaps ignored. At worst, others laugh at, ridicule and call names right to their face. People see them and snicker with each other, bandying about hurtful descriptors or smile condescendingly and talk about how “cute” or “sweet” it is that your child is out functioning in the world in whatever capacity. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I could take that. I couldn’t sit by as my Henry was mocked, ridiculed, laughed at, or treated like he shouldn’t exist. But Henry (and others like him) just suck it up and take it. They don’t shout, “Back ‘atcha bee-yotch” or smack somebody in the face or even politely correct their misapprehensions. They just drop their eyes and try to blend into the woodwork, pretending perhaps like they don’t understand or they didn’t hear it. That just sucks in so many ways, I can’t fully express it.

This has to stop. It HAS to. What have we become? Sometimes I think we’ve come so far in this area since we no longer institutionalize people with special needs and they’re being mainstreamed in education, getting the intervention they need and accomplishing more and more every day. But our attitudes in general haven’t changed. We avoid people who are different. We don’t look at them. We don’t talk to them. It’s almost as if we think if we’re nice to them and treat them like actual HUMAN BEINGS, we’ll catch their cooties or something. GET OVER IT. You can’t catch Down Syndrome. You can’t catch autism. You can’t catch Fragile X or cerebral palsy or hydrocephalus or any of the myriad other developmental & cognitive delays that make people “different”. But you know what you CAN catch from these people? Unconditional love. A more inclusive worldview. A redefinition of what it means to accomplish something. Learning what joy, excitement, happiness really are. Finding amazement in little things. Becoming a better person who’s less focused on yourself and what you can get your hands on or how you can climb the ladder. God forbid any of us should catch any of THAT.

Today is a very important day in our house. It’s a day to get the word out about the word “retard” and its derivatives and how very, very hurtful, hateful and disparaging it is. It’s an attempt to get people thinking about how “retard” is no different from the n-word or f**got or any other pejorative word that refers to someone’s race, sex, religion or whatever. It’s no different because it devalues a group of people by making them small. It’s an attempt to get people to stop using that word. Please. Stop using it. It serves no purpose other than to hurt. It makes an entire group of people into nothing more than a joke. THAT IS NOT OKAY. Ever. For any group of people. But especially for this group because they won’t tell you how you’re mistaken in your view of people with special needs. They won’t challenge you, front you down or beat you up for insulting them.

Back in 2010, Maggie gave a speech in her school. It was given to the 3rd-8th graders and she nailed it. She took a stand and did something about it. I was so incredibly proud of her. I did tape it, but she asked that I not share it here. Basically, she took the speech that Soeren Palumbo gave a few years ago and added a few bits of her own. Actually, it was some things I’ve written in the past about the subject. Here’s what she added:

We’re a country that’s supposed to be about inclusion. Acceptance. Opportunity. A place that discourages hatred, disrespect and cruelty. But, time and time again, people choose to use a word that has no purpose other than to belittle and deride. Of course, there will always be people who choose ignorance over kindness. Hatred over acceptance. Cruelty over inclusion. But if each of us does our part, we can make that percentage smaller and smaller.

I’m setting this off in its own paragraph, because I want to highlight it. Using the word “retard” or “I’m so retarded” or anything like that (joking about the “short bus”, the Special Olympics, etc) does NOT make the use okay. You’re not simply degrading yourself. Break it down – if you say, “I can’t believe how retarded I acted Friday night!!”, what are you really saying? You’re saying that your behavior on Friday night was stupid, ignorant, embarrassing, or somehow not up to the usual standard to which you hold yourself. And by calling that behavior “retarded”, to whom are you comparing yourself? People with Down Syndrome, people with developmental delays, people with cognitive delays. Don’t deny it – that’s what your sentence is saying. You may not be coming out and saying, “I behaved like a person with Down Syndrome – how dumb!!”, but that IS what you’re saying. It’s exactly the same as saying, “Sorry I’m late – I must be on colored people’s time!” or something similar. It’s absolutely, completely unacceptable. If you compared yourself unfavorably with a group of people based on race, gender or religion, you’d be held accountable. Why should this particular group of people be afforded any less dignity, respect or just plain kindness?

We’re all familiar with the idea of being part of the body of Christ and that we all have a purpose to serve. However, I think most of us haven’t given a lot of thought to how (or if?) people with special needs fit into that plan. Let’s see the whole verse.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. 1 Corinthians 12:21-26 NIV (emphasis mine)

I believe that we as the body of Christ aren’t doing a really good job with this, in general. So what do we do? How does God want us to respond? Until we can rewire our society to understand that people with special needs are worthwhile, useful people who deserve respect just like everyone else, we’re going to face ignorant comments, prejudiced viewpoints, incorrect assumptions and all manner of frustrations regarding these people. What I believe is that it is OUR JOB to replace these comments, viewpoints, assumptions and frustrations with God’s. To respond, with love, in a way that teaches, reaches and helps people understand that our children are also an important part of the body of Christ. In fact, if I’m reading those verses correctly, they are a part with special honor and they’re indispensable  What a powerful idea that is! These people aren’t just EQUAL in God’s eyes; they’re given GREATER honor. They’re INDISPENSABLE  I can’t tell you exactly why, but maybe it’s because God knows they have something incredibly special to share with others and teach us about Him. Maybe.

Best part was that she included Henry. She finished that last bit there and then invited Henry in. He ran right up the aisle, did a lap around the kids, found a chair, sat down, moved to a different chair, got down & went up to Maggie and smacked her, did another lap around the kids and then we went out. The best visual aide ever. Because this is what I believe: an issue like this means nothing to you if it’s not made personal. If you don’t know someone personally who fits into the category, you won’t care. So how can I make you care? Make you know someone.

Meet my son. First, just realize he exists and he’s attached to someone you know. Then get to know more about him. Now you know someone that this is about. Now, maybe, you’ll care a little more. Meet Henry. He’s a person with Down Syndrome. He’s not Down Syndrome. It’s not who he is – it’s a small portion of who he is. He also is a person who loves animals fiercely – especially cows, giraffes, elephants and farm animals – who dances with a passion and joy unlike any I’ve ever seen, loves to sing (and if he doesn’t know the words, he’ll simply insert animal names), adores big, heavy books that he can set on his lap to flip through. His best friend right now is his iPad because he can make it do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. He loves his family with abandon. Sometimes a little too much abandon, but still. He has a special affinity for his Pop-Pop. He loves to eat bananas, yogurt, applesauce, Cheerios and graham cookies. He digs spinning, Elmo, Yo Gabba Gabba, Little Bear, Signing Time, books about animals, Jack’s Big Music Show, Mickey Mouse, bouncing, wrestling with his siblings, The Lion King, iCarly, his aide Lisa, his art teacher, Mr. Jones, Alabama Shakes, P!nk, Parliment Funkadlic and any other super-funky music . He’s a person. He has things he loves and things he hates. Just like you. Isn’t that something?

If I’ve reached you, even a little bit, please consider going to www.r-word.org and pledge to stop using that word. But, more than that, pledge to start seeing people who are different as the individual human beings they are. Maybe pledge to get to know somebody who has special needs. I promise – it will change your life.