I’ve known you a long time. And I love you. I really do. A thoughtless comment on your part isn’t going to change that. Because I know you are a good person. I know you wouldn’t be deliberately hurtful to another. You have been there for me through my life –my wedding, births, deaths, professional successes, the idiotic decisions I’ve made, and even those moments not fit for public discourse. You’re a great person. You make me laugh, and you are one of those friends who shows up. You know what I mean — the people who don’t just ask what they can do, but just arrive when they’re supposed to. That’s you, my friend.
But, oh, how I wish you hadn’t just said what you said and did what you did.
Just a little while ago, we were having a great time. We got a babysitter, cleaned up whatever substances the children smeared on us, and took off to remind ourselves that we are still capable of socializing with grownups. At some point, somebody shared an amusing story or point. And that’s when you did it. You made a comment about “not being a retard” and then made a gesture I doubt you seriously considered. You raised your hands and screwed up your face in a parody of a person with a neurological disorder/genetic condition/brain damage and altered your voice — doing the classic “retard” impression. (The r-word – which we’ll call it from this point on.)
And here’s the thing. I’ve seen you say and do that before. Several times. Times when I didn’t think too hard about it. No, you would never tease an actual person with an intellectual disability like that. But you’ve amused yourself and others many times in small group get-togethers – usually just making a quick joke about something being dumb. But that was long before I gave birth to a sweet, beautiful, seemingly perfect baby boy who, at 3 1/2 years old still isn’t talking, won’t play with others, and takes no joy in toys of any kind. That shook me to my core and altered everything I thought I knew about myself, humanity, unconditional love, and the evolution of personal strength.
So, coming from the perspective of a mother who is very likely someday going to hear someone tease her child cruelly, there is nothing – nothing – funny about that at all.
And here’s why. It’s not because we’ve lost our sense of humor or the ability to laugh at ourselves or life. It’s because we now personally know exactly how the mother of an intellectually disabled child would feel upon seeing you do that. It’s because some of us personally know how painful that is to the heart of that same child. Yes, they do know when they are being talked about. They do know when they are being excluded. So would a pet dog. Yet they are not dogs, they are human beings. And they deserve that respect. They have worth. Their lives have value. They can be happy, be productive, and give joy to others. And that’s just something you are not going to fully understand until the issue affects your life in a profound way.
So, friend, I’m going to ask you to do something for me. I’m going to ask you to try to step outside of your own perspective and natural defensiveness and just trust me on this — this is another one of those Golden Rule kind of things. When speaking of human beings, always go with respect for the dignity of the human soul. That path will never steer you wrong.