Prejudice can be overt and ugly. It can be expressed in obvious ways such as segregation, violence, and intimidation. When a person or group experiences overt prejudice there is no ambiguity about what is happening. The message is clear.
Prejudice can also take a more subtle approach. The quiet exclusion from a group, stares, and whispers, or crude humor — Hey, it’s just a joke, don’t be so sensitive!
As a mother to a child with Down Syndrome, you may be surprised to hear that I think there is a third and equally dangerous form of prejudice. That which is hidden in euphemistic language and masked in our laws, conversations, and educational system. One which not only permits bigotry with a wink and a nod but is embraced by the very community it targets as progress.
On the surface, there appears to be so much progress made in promoting tolerance of those with special needs. Articles, touching videos and helpful ideas for teachers to share with his or her class about tolerance and compassion for a new classmate with a disability, and literature from our progressive voices within our communities.
These are all extremely well-intentioned, but can we think about what tolerance means? It means to be tolerated. As if it is the deepest wish of all of us to be tolerated by others.
I get it, tolerance is a bridge to acceptance. But if acceptance is the goal and it is non-negotiable (which it is), then that should be our language.
Teachers should not gather the class, explain differences of the new class member, enlist the other children as “helpers” for the new child, and use the child with a disability as an example to teach compassion.
Instead, the teacher should introduce the new student, allow him or her to share what they wish about themselves, ensure different methods of communication are respected and seen as a normal part of the class, and make certain the other students are functioning in the role of peer only.
Just like any new student in the class.
The same is to be said of tolerance within the larger society. As families of those with disabilities, we still feel grateful when our loved ones are tolerated. As if anyone’s goal is to simply be free from overt bigotry.
Our language of advocacy needs to be unified around the concept of value. The CEO of a company has no more inherent value than the worker who has a disability. The executive may make bigger decisions, have more responsibility, and make more money, but those things are not inherent value. The only place where the CEO is more valuable than the worker with a disability is in the hierarchy of status which is overtly prejudiced.
Inherent value is recognizing both the CEO and the worker are performing the duties of their job. Both individuals have aspirations, goals, strengths, and weaknesses. And, both deserve to be paid fairly.
Prejudice wrapped in euphemism is still prejudice and somewhere along the way, our children gained the distinction of being special.
Our children’s needs, clinics, education, classes, sports teams, and opportunities are all special. Sometimes their shoes, pencils, scissors, forks, and computer pads are special. Often, whole groups of children, families, and communities are labeled as special.
Apparently, there are two categories for everything, one “Special” and the other…I don’t know, “Not-so-Special?”
When the alternative is overtly prejudiced, we as parents and loved ones embrace the label of special and wear it proudly. I feel this deep in my heart. It is far better to be called special than to be called r_____. It is better to have a special opportunity than none at all. It is better to sit together at the ballpark on an Awareness Day, drawing strength from each other, while feeling safe in our special community, than to sit amongst those who might let a slur slip after a few beers.
I’m done pretending this is acceptable.
No one has permission to label my son or his needs as special. Just like every other child, he has strengths and weaknesses. Just like every member of the human race he desires to be loved, accepted, and heard. Just like every person in that ballpark he has the right to cheer for his team and have fun with his family. There is nothing special about it.
Any child can have difficulty reading or have issues with attention and those needs would never be labeled as special in the absence of a diagnosed disability. That child would simply be provided with necessary supports and approaches to improve their abilities, maximize their strengths, and move forward.
Words matter, especially when they serve to categorize people.
While we are at it, there is another accepted label to consider. Just like disagreement means without an agreement, disability literally means without of ability.
Disability Rights, Disability Legislation, Disability Awareness, are all predicated on the premise that specific attention is required to protect those without ability. As an Occupational Therapist for 26 years I can professionally tell you, I have never met anyone who was truly disabled.
For most individuals who sustain a life-altering injury or illness, the focus is on who the person is, identifying his or her goals, and return to desired work. In the event the loss resulted in the inability of the person to return to their previous role, significant effort is given to assist the person in developing other strengths and interests to create a new and fulfilling role.
People who acquire functional losses in their lifetime are not identified by the loss. They are not categorized and labeled as Joe, the double-amputee, or Jane, the arthritic. Yet, we allow our children to be the student with Down Syndrome or creative euphemisms like differently-abled. What does that even mean? Aren’t we all differently-abled?
Diagnosing and understanding our children’s needs is one thing. Allowing the needs to limit potential is ableism.
Most of us have the freedom to mask our weaknesses. We seek educational and vocational opportunities that are of interest to us based on our skills. We may spend our lives working through emotional or physical pain, or set off on a personal journey of fitness. Unless we decide to share, these are personal and private. They do not define our potential.
The newborn with Down syndrome will become the student, child, brother, athlete, worker, artist, writer, husband, with Down Syndrome. As if that label is a disclaimer. Our children can work a million times harder than a peer to achieve the same goal, and the achievement comes with a disclaimer.
Special is not equal. Tolerance is not acceptance. And disability is not reflective of the impact those labeled as such make to this world.
Only when mothers and fathers recognize and challenge the bigotry and ableism can we begin the process of true justice for our children. When we stop permitting the subtle segregation and euphemisms from others, and maybe even stop believing them ourselves, we can see that every human being has a wide range of skills and abilities as well as needs and weaknesses.
Special people with disabilities seeking tolerance from their communities is so 1975.
It is beyond time for progress.