special needs moms: let's stop throat punching

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Anyone who has followed me at eicherumba knows that I am an advocate for ending the use of the R-word. If I had it my way, I would never hear a single person use the word to describe a friend who acted like a fool, an annoying homework assignment, or a movie they did not like. Singers like Iggy Azalea wouldn’t put a damper on awesome songs like “Fancy” by throwing a line in there that says, “and my flow retarded.” Really Iggy? I-G-G-WHY? Just unnecessary. If they have to bleep it out on the radio, there is a good reason, and maybe you could just consider using a different word. Did you mean your flow was stupid? slow? I’m confused.

While these things, along with news headlines that completely neglect people first language like, “Down syndrome boy wins homecoming king”, are frustrating and bothersome, I feel like our community of special needs moms (wait, can I even call us that?) has really become so impatient. It is like we have created some zero tolerance policy on an issue where there really needs to be some room for grace.  

It wasn’t all that long ago that I myself used the R-word. I grew up in a generation where we threw it around freely and didn’t think a thing about it. And I was even a kid who worked with Lifeskills students growing up all the way from elementary school on. I LOVED them. I was passionate about people with special needs from a very young age. And there were probably times I walked out of that Lifeskills room after skipping lunch to hang out with my buddies in there, and called one of my “typical” friends retarded for whatever reason, or likely no reason at all. The two things didn’t go together in my mind. When I said the word I wasn’t thinking about my friends with special needs. 

And it really wasn’t until Archie came into my life that I realized the impact of the word. It wasn’t until I looked into my son’s eyes and thought, “holy crap. That’s no bueno.” It became even more of an issue for me when I talked to some of my friends on the Special Olympics team we work with. Young adults with all different types of special needs. I asked some of them one day what it felt like when people used that word. Some of them teared up while telling stories of peers or even adults in their lives using the R-word and the hurt that it caused them. And THAT made me angry. 

All of that is to say- “I AM WITH YOU”. Moms who get heated when you hear these words that cause pain to our children. I get it. And I am right there with you. However, we have got to stop being so darn scary about it. As with most issues, education is key here. Threatening to throat punch every person that says the R-word is just not gonna get the job done. Now, if you encounter some jerk who was actually being hateful in using the word, throat punch away, my friend. But for the most part, when we hear the word, or when someone fails to use people first language, it isn’t because they are being a jackass or trying to hurt our children, it is because they just don’t realize the impact. 

This summer Jenny, the kids and I all went to Austin for a day trip to meet some friends I had been dying to meet for a long time. They have a little girl who has Down syndrome and is amazing. They’re from California, but were going to be visiting friends in Austin, so of course we decided to make the drive from Houston to Austin for the day to go and meet them. One of our new friends, Nate, (friend of the people we went to meet) quickly fell in love with and bonded with Jojo. He held him for hours. They had some awesome connection going on. That night, while still holding Jojo, Nate used the R-word. Jenny called him out. Not in a mean, throat-punching way. But in a “hey hey now, we don’t use that word..” way. He felt awful. His face changed from happy and laughing with Jojo, to sad and embarrassed. I am pretty sure there was even a tear or two. He hugged Jojo tight and rubbed the back of his head as if to tell him, “I’m so sorry, buddy.” 

Jenny handled the moment just right. She didn’t scold or lecture him. She didn’t act appalled or angry or as if she had never used that word before. But I know that it had a major impact. Though we had only known Nate for a matter of hours, we had all formed quick friendships and it was a situation in which we were all comfortable enough with each other to have those conversations. Now, was the goal to make Nate feel awful, of course not. We love Nate. But I am pretty confident that he appreciated Jenny’s reminder, and would rather her have said something as opposed to us standing around looking at each other like, “rut-roh” and him having no idea. 

Of course everyone is different in the ways they handle things that they are passionate about. I get that. But I am just thinking we should come up with some nice ways to educate people that don’t involve immediately writing them off as jerks. And you might find yourself caught in a moment at some point where you hear someone say the word, and really have no idea how to handle it. That’s okay too. 

Here's an idea for when in a situation where you just can't find the words. A plan that I believe to be nothing short of genius:

Save that picture, and when in a situation where you just can’t find the words in the moment, send it in a private message to the offender. And I am pretty confident that it will work well with a male or female perp. 

What it all boils down to is showing some grace. Educating. Raising awareness. But we should do it in a way that doesn’t make people afraid to ask questions or make them feel nervous about speaking around us for fear of saying the wrong thing. Should we be silent? ABSOLUTELY NOT. But there is a difference between speaking out for what you believe in and making a well-meaning person who just doesn’t know feel like a piece of dirt. Let’s be more approachable. More open to questions that might even come off as offensive to us. Those are the moments in which we have the opportunity to open people’s eyes. 

Thank you for letting me share,

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