I am an avid Facebook user. I love the interaction and the ability to connect with and rediscover long lost friends and relatives. I try to accept most friend requests unless I absolutely have no idea who the person is. To be honest most of my 600 plus friends are really no more than acquaintances. I discreetly hide a lot of their posts but one got through to me that gave me pause. And after some reflection it spurred me to action.
It was a caption with pictures of three young men of color with their pants sagging and their underwear exposed. The caption read explicitly “STOP IT! You look like a F@#$%ing Retard. Now I don’t care for that look on young people regardless of their ethnicity. But I took offense to the post for a couple of reasons. One it was vulgar. Two is that I have two special needs children that are diagnosed as mentally retarded and autistic.
Now I would like to think that I am not overly sensitive to labels. My sons are mentally retarded. Calling them mentally challenged doesn’t soften the blow. They have severe limitations. But that label has become a substitute word to allow us to bully people we don’t like.
All ethnic groups have endured slurs. Irish, Italians, American Indians, Jews, Poles, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Women, and Gays all have derogatory labels. But as they gained a voice they have fought back. They have challenged people’s supposed right to slander or ridicule them. As a result those labels are now uttered in private and not for the main stream to see or read. But our desire to bully or lash out at those who offend us has spurred some to find another derision. We call almost anybody who behaves or acts in a way that we find offensive a retard.
The irony in all of this is my son’s could care less. They are fastidious dressers. They tuck in their shirts, pull up their pants, even button their shirts completely. They wash their hands and frankly just go about their business. If they could talk they would probably say “Dad let it go. It doesn’t bother us so don’t let it bother you.” But because they are good natured it does bother me. And because they cannot speak I feel I must speak for them and others like them.
Many years ago I ran the ToppSoccer program for special needs children in Mandeville, Louisiana. I had several children who had Downs Syndrome and were fairly high functioning. We also had some more severe children. So I broke the field in half and placed the kids in the most appropriate setting possible. We had a lot of fun, but one day I saw the best and worst of people.
Pelican Park is very large with a heavy demand. One day,by accident, the fields got overbooked. A group of typical kids and their parents showed up thirty minutes before we were to conclude thinking they would have the field. I explained to the coaches that we would be wrapping up soon but that didn’t stop some of their players from ringing the field and saying things like ” What’s wrong with them?” or ” How long do we have to wait?”
One of my players upon hearing some of this walked to me and said ” We can get off if they want to use the field.” This was the same group of kids that cheered every time someone scored a goal and insisted that practice not end until everyone had scored a goal. I looked down at him and in my most authoritative voice I said “Hell will freeze over before we leave this field one minute before our allotted time is up!” I then cast a gaze at all the kids and parents lining the field. They all moved away and sat down. My little player just said “Ok.” and ran back to join his teammates.
The fact is when we call someone retarded hoping to hurt them we do two things. We show our own cowardice in picking on a group that can’t fight back and we further demonstrate that we are really too afraid to use the label we really want to say. Personally my goal is to be worthy of being labeled retarded if that means I treat people the way my son’s do, with respect, compassion, and understanding. I fail in this endeavor frequently but they and others like them never falter. I guess my boys maybe could have done better than me as a dad, but I am certain I could not have done better than having them for sons. So boys please forgive your father for being outspoken on this. I know it doesn’t bother you but it made me feel better to speak out when I know you cannot.
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WOW!! I am absolutely speechless! What a great blog this was! I had the great pleasure of knowing you Merrill…on a personal level and professional level…I was and have always thought of you as a outstanding and very dedicated father to your two boys! In my opinion they could not have a better voice to speak for them when it is needed! You and Jennifer both are great parents and do so much to help those two outstanding young men to achieve the most they can….I am proud to be able to say that I know you!