Yo soy La Lay

adventures in family, faith, and Down syndrome

Lesson #21: Unintentional Ableism

Ableism – a set of practices and beliefs that assign inferior value (worth) to people who have developmental, emotional, physical or psychiatric disabilities.

We would love to see Tessa break down barriers, exceed expectations, go beyond anyone’s wildest predictions of what she will accomplish in her lifetime.  John and I have no preconceived notions for what she will do with her life. Full inclusion through high school?  Why not?  Go to college?  OK!  Open a restaurant like Tim’s Place?  Dandy!  Star in a TV show like Glee?  Great!  We set no limits on her potential and watch to see what happens.  Hopefully, that is a powerful force in her life that pushes her to do her best.

She might not do any of those things.

The reality of our future with Tessa (and with any child, really) is that we have no way to predict what will come as she grows.  It is certainly our responsibility, as parents, to teach our children to live to their full potential.  However, we cannot pass judgement on what that potential is.

There is still value in the life of an adult who bags groceries at the local supermarket.

There is still value in the life of an adult who lives with his parents and takes public transportation to a minimum-wage job.

There is still value in the life of an adult who “makes your french fries.”

(On a side note, I just need to vent for one second about the statement “well, someone has to make my fries.” There is nothing wrong with making french fries.  And yes, someone really does have to make them for you unless you plan on climbing into the drive-thru window at McDonald’s and making them yourself.  So why do we need to use this as a sarcastic comment to mock a person’s intellectual ability?  Just wondering.)

Being successful has nothing to do with money.  It has nothing to do with power.  It has nothing to do with influence or intelligence or ability or stuff.  It has everything to do with abounding love, kindness to the most unkind people, friendship, compassion, and contributing in the best way that one can.

I get that now.

Truth.

This is part of the 31 for 21 Blog Challenge!

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Lesson #15: We owe a lot to parents of the past

This is part of the 31 for 21 Blog Challenge!

I’m cheating a little tonight…. not because I don’t have time to write.  Actually, one thing I DO have tonight is time.  However, I want to share the words of another mom… words that I’ve been trying to find a way to express for quite some time and frankly, she does a better job than any of the drafts that I have come up with.

Please click below to read…

To the Mother of the Adult Son With Down Syndrome in the Grocery Store Today

Tessa, 20 days old

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On Language

Words are so powerful.  The problem is that words are also so tricky.

My life’s work is teaching students how to use new words to express themselves… to get what they need, to make a new friend, to experience the world differently.  The excitement of a student on a Monday morning who used Spanish to order in a restaurant on Saturday afternoon is beautiful.  16 year old teenagers beam from ear to ear as they tell me about how they understood someone in the checkout line at Jewel.  And I beam right back.   

One of the difficulties in teaching language is helping my students understand the differences in culture that can evoke strong emotion when a word is used incorrectly.  As a study abroad student in Ecuador, I lived with an absolutely wonderful family.  Toward the end of my stay with them, my host brother commented on how my host sister and I were similar.  He said that she and I are very intelligent, but like to have fun.  Trying to agree with him by saying that we are both kind of silly, I used the word “estupida” to describe my host sister and I.  Now, my Profe Junkroski taught me better than that back in my first year of Spanish, but in my rush to get my feelings out, I used a word that carries a much stronger meaning in Spanish than what I wanted to convey.  Her face flushed, as did mine…  it was painful and awkward.   

This is what happens when someone uses the word “retard” or any of its various forms.  

Let’s not mince words here.  The fact of the matter is that my child will most likely be mild to moderately mentally retarded.  That is an accepted and appropriate way for a professional to refer to her slower-than-typical cognitive function.  But it is not a word that is used to describe her as a person, nor is it appropriate for describing a mistake, or a rule that one might find bothersome.  It does not describe a friend who has done something silly, nor any other person or experience that is disagreeable.

You see, context is the tricky part of language.  And even the most mundane of words that we chose can evoke strong feelings in those around us.  Don’t believe me?  Say the word “mom” in front of someone who has just lost their mother or “pregnant” around someone who is struggling to conceive a child.  Don’t care?  That’s very sad and unfortunate for you.  

The reality is that we do not know the intricacies of the minds of those around us.  The joyful thing about language is that we have lots of words to use!  I’m not suggesting that one must avoid any and all words that could possibly evoke a negative reaction.  That is just impossible and quite unnecessary.  Again however, the word “retard” is only an appropriate way for a professional to refer to someone’s slower-than-typical cognitive function, and even there it is falling out of favor.  And rather than using the word “retard,” there are so many other ways to express ourselves that won’t turn the insides of our fellow human beings into knots.

When I called my host sister stupid, she and my host brother very graciously explained that the word I was looking for was “tonta,” with a meaning more similar to silly, which is what I actually meant.  If you hear the “r” word, might it be possible for you to do the same?

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