Friday, July 07, 2006


I received an e-mail from a friend of mine tonight. She has three children, one of which is special needs. Her daughter is severely retarded, along with a host of other issues. We e-mail regularly, mostly about what’s going on with our lives, but occasionally, we bounce medical issues or ethical issues off each other, since we both live the life as mothers of children with special needs. It is great because we can talk openly and freely about things with our children, that most people have never experienced or would never understand.

As mothers of children with special needs, we share a common bond. We are both good mothers and love our children deeply. We take good care of our children and are fine with their abilities and disabilities. While we certainly wish things were different, I doubt that either one of us could really imagine our special needs children as normal. If they were, it wouldn’t change anything about how we feel about them; we love them deeply and that’s that.

Several times in the past year, we have both had incidents were people have made derogatory statements about children/people with mental retardation. When these incidents have occurred, we usually will send an e-mail to each other discussing the incident. It is amazing to me, at which the frequency of these incidents is occurring. It is also hard to believe, that people in 2006, still think it’s “o.k.” to say these things.

Here’s the incident:

My friend went into a guitar place to speak with her son’s teacher after his bass lesson and walked past the front desk. It is a store where they sell guitars and stuff, and lessons are given upstairs. As she was walking by, she overheard a female customer saying, "I swear he looked like SUCH a retard playing that thing! I mean really, I told him, "Ferchrissakes, you look like a MONGOLOID!!!!" She was laughing her ass off. My friend said she wasn’t sure, but she thought she was talking about her poor son. The store owner just kind of mumbled – she really seems like such a nice person. She said she felt like the store owner didn’t know what to say or do. She said she didn’t say anything. And she didn't do anything, but she felt that she should have. Then again, she asked herself, "Why? What would I have accomplished?" Then she asks me, “What would you have done?”

I replied to her that I wasn’t sure what I would have done, mainly because when these things happen, I am so shocked at their insensitivity, that it leaves me speechless. I also responded to her and said that if you substituted the word “gay” and “fag” in the above incident for the words “retard” and “mongoloid” that the entire store would have been appalled at the conversation. People would have been appalled when reading the incident. The story might have been reported, harassment charges might have been filed, the story might have made the news in some areas. If you were to substitute the words, “black” in the above incident, people would have been appalled as well. But because it was the words, “retard” or “mongoloid”, it was somehow, okay.

I am amazed that some people still think it’s o.k. to make derogatory statements about people with mental and physical disabilities. I am amazed that people make statements about people who can’t defend themselves. I am amazed that people don’t understand how easily it can be for anyone to become disabled. I mean, you can get hit by a car and be severely disabled mentally and physically for the rest of your life.

Several months ago, I experienced an incident in the blogging world that had me very incensed. A fellow blogger, who is also a pediatrician, made a derogatory comment about “riding the short bus”. He didn’t seem to think there was any real problem with making such a derogatory statement like this. I was appalled that a pediatrician today could make such a statement and not see anything wrong with it. When I called him on it, he told me to stop reading his blog,that he could write whatever he wanted. Nice. The point isn’t that you can call people whatever you want because you have a blog, the point is that as a pediatrician, a professional, a human being and a father, you would think that someone who have more compassion than referring to those with mental disabilities in a derogatory manner. Aside from compassion, it’s just plain wrong. And then to accept money from these parents for your “professional” services, seems appalling. Can you really expect your mentally disabled child to be treated respectfully and with dignity by their pediatrician if they don’t see any problem with making derogatory statements like that in public no less?

In the end, I told my friend, that we need to come up with a response for people. When you are fortunate enough to have a child born normal, I suspect you don’t imagine what it might be like to have a child who is retarded. But ignorance is not acceptable anymore. It’s also not fair to Dear Son and children like him. He is not any less of a person because of disabilities. And to be referred to as the butt of anyone’s joke is totally unacceptable today.


neuroticillinifan said...

You know, in my lifetime, I can substitute "fatty" and "whale" in those sentences and feel the pain that you and the other mother would feel at the comments she heard. Fat seems to be the other acceptable thing to still pick on. I can't tell you the number of times I've overheard derogatory comments from people regarding my weight. Why people think that they can make rude comments about any aspect of any other person is beyond me. It shows a definite lack of compassion on that person's part.

Danielle said...

Dream Mom-

Have you seen "The Ringer" with Johnny Knoxville? At first, I was appalled by the idea, however when I say that the Special Olympics was endorsing the movie, I decided to go see it!

It is a Farely Brothers movie, and I was so impressed with an interview they did where they said, "If kids hear Johnny Knoxville telling people to not use that disgusting "R" word, then maybe kids will cut it out of their vocab too."

So there are good people, even in the mainstream media, who are doing their best to fight stereotypes. To turn Fleas, uh I mean foes, into friends.

zoe said...

Sometimes when an incident occurs it takes you so off guard because you were not expecting it that you don't have a response at the time. Most of the time it leaves you feeling hurt and angry--my God it is your child they are talking about--how could you not. And there lies the fine line because when we do react these can be teachable moments for others who are ignorant. Your response now may give this person pause the next time a situation arises with a disabled person and maybe they will think twice about what they say--or may be not--some people may never "get it". The majority of people are not cruel, they just don't think. They don't think because they have not had to--even pediatricians.
You are so right Dream Mom, what separates the able bodied and disabled--is not much--a car accident, a fall, an illness. Who knows? God gives us today. There are no guarantees that you get to keep what you have.

Wrkinprogress said...

DM -- remember my motto? "People are stupid. (And I hate them.)"

I will try to think of a good comeback for the actual idiots who speak so cruelly and thoughtlessly. Maybe if we all (out here in the blogosphere) work together on this one, we can come up with some zingers!

You hang in there, sugar. You know where you and DS are loved to the max -- right here!


mary said...

Well, I can't tell you any particular "rule" about handling this, but it happens all the time! My only two suggestions are one, to model appropriate language at all times and remember it has nothing to do with "political correctness" (that will be the most favorite come-back from people you correct) and two, grab teachable moments when you can and leave the rest alone. And the best teaching is to be a good role model. If we expect people to respect those with mental retardation and treat them with regard, we have to do that, too.

As a parent of a kid with Down syndrome, I can't tell you how often the term "mongoloid" is used as a blatant insult. Google it, if you're really interested, and you'll just be appalled. But I can't chase all those people down! It would be pointless anyway...they are going out of their way to insult and don't give a dam*.

As far as "retard" goes, some people are using it (most people, probably) the way one of your commenters above used the word "idiot". That is, they are using it in place of "stupid". The word "idiot" is, itself, an insult that refers to people with mental retardation. It's just so old-fashioned now, we don't hear people diagnosed anymore as "idiots". But that was once a medical term for a person with a certain IQ score. Idiot-imbecile-moron...they all meant a division of mental retardation. So, I try to remember that most people are using the word "retard" without thinking, in a way they themselves have always heard it used, and not in an attempt to insult people with mental retardation. Kind of the way some of us still say "idiot" without realizing the derivation of that word.

That doesn't mean it should continue. Language is very powerful, it matters, it changes perceptions and empowers or disenfranchises as the case may be-something many people throwing the words "political correctness" around refuse to think about. It only means I try to keep people's motives in mind as I try to educate their hearts.


Cathy said...

I hate this when I hear of it. What makes people act in such a way? I wish we could just slap some sense into these insensitive folks.

Not long after my knee replacement (still had 40 staples in my knee)I was going into a rest. with a friend of mine. I was still using the walker when some car came flying through the parking lot, she had to slam on her brakes to keep from hitting me. He response.... "If you wasn't walking so slow and not limping like a jackass I wouldn't have almost hit you!" I swear I wanted to kick her a**. If I had not been so ill I would have tried.

This woman had a teenage daughter with her who said...."Mom, what is wrong with you?" Imagine what she is teaching that daughter.

These people will get paid back one day dream mom.

Dreaming again said...

when I went to church camp, I had two giggling girls stop me ... sit me down.

They were laughing really hard and asked me what mongoloid meant.

they thought the word sounded funny. One of them had been called it by a boy in the camp that morning and they'd been calling each other it all morning.

I told them. I'd forgotten the family history of the one girl.

Suddenly both girls sobered very quickly.
Joke over.
Her younger brother has down's syndrome. This, was NOT funny.

They kind of gave a nervous laugh that she should have known the word ... but didn't.

it was a hard lesson for those two teens. :*(

communityhealthcare said...

Ignorant and common is the use of that word, "retard", and when judging, realize it is not necessarily a deliberate or devious ill-will toward the mentally challenged, but a common sloppy term thrown around far too often to mean "stupid" as Mary stated. doesn't make it right, it is insensitive, but mostly uneducated about the offensiveness. At some point, it is important that people understand this, and as hurtful as it comes across, it is their ignorance/etc, that you shouldn't have to take on a personal level for your own sake. they will learn hopefully...

RunAwayImagination said...

People who are actually affected by mental retardation, and their families, have a different point of view. My sister, who is four years younger than me, was born mentally retarded (in 1950).

Back then no one talked about such things. Those were the days when white people like us referred to black people as "colored."

My sister was a deep embarrassment to me. I remember in high school bringing a date home to meet mom & dad and being horrified that she would think I too was "crazy" (the only word I had available at that time to describe my sister's condition).

I used to think I probably was "crazy" too, sensing that such disabilities are often inherited. Such thoughts only amplified the typical teenage angst for me.

My sister is now 56 and lives quite happily in a group home, working in a sheltered workshop. My wife, by her open and loving nature, has opened up a new relationship with my sister, one that I never knew could exist.

I've gotten used to the term "retarded" being used as a general epithet, not meaning what it says. Words are like that; their meaning is elastic and can change with time. But maybe we should not lose our sensitivity to words like these. Because words CAN hurt, and deeply too. I don't believe the old adage that "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me."

People should be aware that terms like "retarded" may deeply offend people, and those terms should never be used indiscriminately in public.

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