February 21, 2010
Follow up to the R-word
Wow. I never imagined that little Five Guys story would have touched so many people! When I was writing it I really had second guesses about it--I didn't think it was all that interesting. I mean, it was cool when it happened, but it didn't seem like anything out of the ordinary. Except the free fries. The whole episode passed rather naturally and comfortably. I guess I ought to get ready for a more confrontational situation some time.
Our family is pretty insulated against mainstream popular culture. We're not complete granolas here, but we definitely march to a different drummer. Since we homeschool it's easier to avoid negative closed-minded people. Even though we are by no means isolated--we're out and about in the community and interacting with all kinds of people--we're just not boxed in. I don't have to worry much about who has access to my kid, or who will say what to her or about her.
We do work on toughing Hannah up some. She has a pretty thin skin when it comes to teasing. We're working on getting her to recognize the difference between "fun" teasing and "mean" teasing. When to ignore things and when to laugh along to have fun, and when to ask for help. It's hard because we can't possibly come up with all the scenarios she might encounter.
Back when Hannah was an alien my wise sister gave me some good suggestions: "We did a lot of role playing with Stephen last year before he started Kindergarten. He's short, so I'd call out, "Hey Shrimp!". It took a while for him to learn to respond, "Heya, lobster!" Boy was that time well spent! Wish I'd done it with my over-sensitive girl. We have a good book called Sticks and Stones that goes through various anti-bullying techniques to teach kids. One of our favorites is "you might be right". No matter what someone calls you, you reply, "Yep, you might be right!" I've seen this in action, and it makes the name calling game boring pretty fast."
I feel that negative teasing and name-calling does far more damage than the casual usage of the r-word. Clearly Hannah didn't pick up on the Five Guys guy's muttered phrase. There was no immediate harm done to her when he spoke those words. Of course, she doesn't yet have an understanding of what "retarded" means. She does know that she has Down syndrome, and that the extra chromosome gives her body extra directions that make her uniquely Hannah. For the most part, she sees herself as equal to everyone else. She clearly has a strong self-image and has innocent, ambitious plans for her future--to be a dentist, a ski-jumper, a veterinarian, a ballerina, a dog-trainer. She doesn't feel that she has any limitations. And I don't want people putting limitations on her--neither with low expectations nor with their hurtful words.
I fully expect Hannah will eventually recognize her own limitations, the same as the rest of us who once imagined winning Olympic Gold or becoming the President . I know we'll have to help her through as she realizes what Down syndrome means to her--most likely she will not have babies of her own, she may not be as independent as she wishes, she will have loneliness and disappointments. Just the same as the rest of us.
The difference between our own life struggles and hers is that we don't have as many other people telling us who we are and who we aren't. We don't have people disbelieving our abilities--people who are consistently surprised that we are able to do typical things like read, shop, dance--people who are putting us down, putting us as second-class citizens. I am glad that Hannah doesn't have to be exposed to this yet.
I don't like the r-word. Yes, it's part of the puzzle. But I don't think it's the worst thing. If we eliminate it, there will be a new word to take it's place, I guarantee it. The same as moron, dumb, imbecile and idiot. Not too long ago saying "idiotic" felt the same to some families as "retarded" feels to us. But the words are not the worst thing. The worst thing is not being able to change people's minds about what difference and disability means. I think that only happens one person at a time, usually by someone like Hannah, or Jessie, or Vignesh, or Jude.