Friday, January 6, 2012
Take a trip back to grade school with me for a moment when the biggest insult in my hometown (besides "you kick like Kara," often heard at my soccer practices) was to call somebody a "weaver." We used the term freely as a put-down when someone was acting goofy, doing something we considered dumb, or if we really wanted to get a jab in and hurt someone's feelings. While most people would not consider "weaver" a derogatory term, it was. We all knew it referred to the Weaver School and Workshop, an organization in our town serving people with intellectual and physical disabilities - people with whom we had little to no contact (since this was before inclusion brought people with special needs into our classrooms) - people who seemed strange, silly, and even a little scary (as the unknown can often be). Imagine the social studies lessons about colonial jobs . . . blacksmiths, glassblowers, and weavers (now imagine the class erupting into giggling fits as the teacher moved the lesson along and tried to get us back to the point). By the time we entered middle school, most of us stopped using the term "weaver" as an insult. I guess somewhere along the way we grew a little and realized that it was immature and even hurtful. Being the mature and sensitive middle schoolers we were, we replaced "weaver" with "retard." I guess you could say we were a bit slow to learn.
We still are.
I was recently at an evening meeting run by our county's Intermediate Unit to educate parents and professionals about the process of transitioning a child with special needs into preschool. I walked in feeling a bit shy in the room of 100+ people who all appeared to know each other (excepting me) and chose a seat in the back row where I could eat my free pizza and hopefully glean some guidance about Henry's upcoming transition. I had chosen a seat behind a group of teachers, who were likely there for credits and free pizza (hey, no judgement here - after a long day of work, we all needed some enticement to sit through a 40 slide Power Point on education laws and individual rights). And so I sat, sipping my Diet Coke and killing time on Facebook waiting for the presentation to begin when I heard it. The R Word. Straight from the mouth of one of the teachers in front of me (who works in my county . . . possibly with my child someday). And before you suppose that this group may have been heralding the recent wave of advocacy against the R word and joining forces to "spread the word to end" it, I'll let you down and tell you that she was relaying a story about her day, repeatedly using phrases such as, "It's not like I'm retarded!" and "He was treating me like I was retarded!"
And this is where SuperKara, Brave Mama, Special Educator, and Tireless Advocate for Henry . . . sat in stunned silence and did nothing. I know, I know. My shyness took over and the thought of confronting this woman in front of her colleagues and admitting to eavesdropping on their private conversation made my knees wobble. I sat, processing, burning, and did nothing. And oh, I regret it. What was I afraid of? She couldn't hurt me more than she already had. "He was treating me like I was retarded." How's that exactly? Worthless? Stupid? Less than human? Like someone who somehow warrants ill treatment? Like someone (gulp) SHE would treat in such a way if they were, you know, retarded?
It's time to grow again. To mature. To leave behind the hate speech and evolve a bit, don't you think? But "retard" is not yet widely recognized as hate speech. Not when special ed teachers say it at county meetings. Not when my friends slip up and say it with self-deprecating humor. People justify their words with, "I didn't mean it like that," or "I didn't realize." Pleading ignorance excuses you just ONCE. I won't be shy anymore. Not about this. Not if I want Henry to experience the respect and dignity he deserves. I am going to be the obnoxious lady who interrupts your private conversation. I'm going to be the mom who calls the county to make sure their teachers are educated about hate speech. I'm going to be the party pooper who interrupts the laughter to ask her friends not to use that word. Sheesh, special parents are really annoying sometimes, aren't we? So are growing pains.