How to Not Be a Dick to the Special Needs Community

But first, a test to find out where you land on the spectrum.  “Please don’t use the r-word (retard, retarded, -tard suffix, etc), it’s hurtful.”  If your response to that request is “ok.” then go ahead and move on with your day.  Sure, you might gain an insight or two about the community by reading this article, but you are likely in no jeopardy of ever being perceived as a dick with such carte blanche respectfulness.  If your response is “why?”, that’s actually great.  You may find some salient points here to help you probe that question.  Though, if your response is “sigh, why! …just another example of political correctness run amok!” then, sadly, there is a high likelihood that you are a hopelessly irredeemable asshole.  This article may be a waste of time for you.  The curious thing about people that espouse the PC-run-amok position is that they wear their ignorance and lack of basic human empathy like a badge of honor.  This loud proclamation is so very helpful, it makes PC-detractors easy to spot in a crowd so I can disassociate, de-friend, and distance myself from them and my family.  Please leave.


Ok, now that we have the right audience, let’s proceed.

Step One: Please don’t use the r-word, it’s hurtful, just find another word

Truth be told in 2004 when the Black Eyed Peas rephrased their song from “Let’s get retarded” to “Let’s get it started” my honest initial reaction was disappointment.  I’m ashamed that it took 6 more years and someone handing me a membership card to the community that finds the r-word offensive for me to finally see how fucked up that reaction was and to see how insidious and poisonous that word has become.  There’s no better article I’ve seen than Catherine’s on the R-word for illustrating why that word feels like acid poured directly on the heart.  I can only hope that if a friend had sat me down and explained it to me I would have made the change earlier, hence this article for you.

Now if you read the above and still say, “but ‘retard’ just means ‘slow’, I do not mean any offense by its use, it’s just english”.  Sure, I get it, you’re straining to rationalize your word choice because you’d rather feel righteous indignation than guilt.  Just be aware of the massive power imbalance of you being able to choose another word and the special needs community’s modest request for respect while they deal with an affliction that has no cure.  Please default to being respectful when it costs you nothing lest you be perceived as a dick.

Step Two: Accept the fact that you too are disabled

Don’t believe me?  Then please proceed with me to the dance floor where we will perform a Cha Cha routine.  I imagine many of you saying “Oh, I’d never do that I would look totally retar… …foolish”.  By the way, thank you for catching yourself.  Yes, it’s a simple fact that we many times avoid attempting tasks that make us look foolish.  Now imagine that the tasks that revealed your disability were the ones we take for granted for living life.  Beautifully complicated tasks like maintaining balance while sitting and motor planning to grasp an object.  Truth is, those of us without neurological impairment are granted the gift of not having to consciously hold our frame and balance while sitting.  “Retarded” is deprecated as a medical term precisely because it is actively ignorant of reality.  Someone with neurological impairment appears “slow” attempting this simple task, but what that term denigrates is the beautiful capacity of neuroplasticity and the feat of compensation taking place to actively maintain body stability, route around the brain injury, and find another way to do what we all take for granted.  Be thankful for the privilege of avoiding tasks that make you appear disabled.  When you do attempt something where you feel foolish I hope that people offer you encouragement and understanding as you struggle, those that don’t you can rightly call a dick.

Step Three: Maintain a healthy skepticism of your ability to classify people as inside or outside of the special needs community.

Some families struggle for years to find out what is afflicting them only to lay a child to rest before being granted a label.  Others are lucky to get the label and, similar to how you and I actively hide our own disabilities, do their best to keep their disability private.  Sometimes they do such an effective job of pushing through the pain that they are rewarded with nasty-grams from people that believe they are committing fraud when they consume disability resources.  Rest assured that borrowing your grandmother’s disabled placard or renting disabled children to cut in line at Disneyland most definitely makes you a dick.  However, the only time I would trust your judgement to identify such abuse is if you witness Lebron James slipping into the last disabled parking space while Stephen Hawking is forced to circle around.  Outside of that I cringe at the injustice of you clumsily and literally adding insult to injury.

This cuts even deeper for parents of children with behavioral disabilities.  Sans a wheelchair people tend to turn off their compassion for disabled persons.  It’s sad and perverse that I occasionally feel grateful that my daughter has an obvious disability compared to the struggle of parents with children on the spectrum of behavioral disorders.  Certainly, for disabled and unaffected families alike, there is nothing more annoying than unwanted parenting advice.  Shocking, yes, well meaning *advice* can be unwanted and uncomfortable.  With that in mind I can only imagine how painful it is for a parent when that “advice” becomes admonishment and blame.  More obstacles lobbed in the path of a family struggling for and mourning a “normal” life.  Please don’t be a dick to these warriors.

Our lives, yours and mine, special needs or not, are already hard.  Just try your best to not make things worse for someone else.  Apologize if you make a mistake.  Be comfortable feeling uncomfortable that you don’t fully understand what special needs folks are going through.  Try your best to be respectful and you will easily be considered part of the solution.