To the Smith’s employee that helped me yesterday:
Thank you for helping me yesterday when I picked up my daughter’s birthday cupcakes. When you saw me walk up, you and your colleague immediately addressed me and said you would get a bakery clerk to help me. While your colleague went to find her, you looked in the walk-in refrigerator to see if you could find them yourself. You could not, and were very apologetic about it. Luckily I had plenty of time so was not stressed out about this at all, but I appreciated your concern. When a bakery worker did arrive a few minutes later, she got them right away. They were right there on the back counter with the other 6 dozen cupcakes that were ready for pick up. You clearly felt a little silly that they were so easy to find and you hadn’t seen them, so you apologized again. You said: “So sorry about that, I am a little special needs,” with a smile. If you remember me, you might remember what I calmly said back: “My special needs son would have found them right away.” I smiled, took my cupcakes and left politely, but I have been thinking about what you said since then.
So I am pretty sure that you aren’t special needs. Your customer service skills were great, you spoke clearly, made good eye contact, and seemed to have no physical issues. If you are indeed special needs, I applaud you for all of the hard work it must have taken to get to the place where you are clearly a good employee at a good company who has no apparent issues doing his job or speaking to people. As the parent of a special needs kid, I will be very proud when he attains all of the skills needed to do a job like yours.
But I am thinking, that maybe, you used “special needs” as a way to say, “I made a mistake” or “I feel stupid” or “doh!”. I am thinking that a few years ago you might have used “retarded” instead, and I am very pleased that you chose not to use that word, because we all know that the r-word hurts people. Thankfully, that campaign has been very successful. But I want you to know, other words can hurt people, too. Because when you say you are “a little special needs” as a way to describe yourself as someone who is feeling a little unintelligent for not seeing those cupcakes, what you are saying is that “special needs” people are unintelligent. That’s just not the case.
My awesome kids. None of them deserve to be made fun of. Except for Gibson, maybe, because she just refuses to smile nicely in pictures. Which I think is both annoying and hilarious. (But only about the smiling thing, mind you.)
I will share with you a little bit about my 7 year old son Gage. He is far from unintelligent. He’s quite smart, actually. He taught himself to read at 2. He does grade level math. He is great at mazes and he is the only one in our house who truly understands the DVD player. Gage knows just what buttons to push on our broken microwave to heat up his soup. He does have problems communicating, but he has really come a long way since he started talking at almost 4. Gage has some problems in social situations, because it is hard to sit still and there are millions of synapses firing in his brain all the time. He has to filter a lot of stuff out that you and I don’t have to. But he is trying.
So what I am asking is for you to try, too. Try to find another word to use when you make a mistake. Some good ones (that I am pretty sure are offensive to no one) are: bonehead, doofus, airhead, dork, dipstick, dumbbell, goofball, and nitwit. Heck, I am blonde and wouldn’t be offended at all if you said you were “having a blonde moment”. You seemed like a kind and poised individual, and I am thinking that you truly meant no harm when you used “special needs” as a way to put some humor into your apology. I am assuming you just don’t know that it can be hurtful. I am here to tell you: it is.
So many people assume Gage is unintelligent because of his special needs. I don’t need anyone perpetuating that myth. I worry about what will happen if “special needs” becomes the new “r-word”. People already put so many limitations on him. We don’t need a culture where it is ok to make fun of people with special needs. Just like we don’t need a culture where it is ok to pick on the intellectually disabled. I have (hopefully) 40 or so years to help create a world where my son will be unconditionally valued, no matter what his ability level ends up being (we really don’t know at this point, but we presume the best just like all parents hopefully do). I have 40 years to help this world get to a place where I can feel ok about dying and leaving my son here without me. How will he be treated? Will he be seen as a burden to society? Will he be sent to an institution and abused? Will people still be wasting his time trying to stop him from twirling his hair? Or will people try to understand him and value him for who he is? Will people help him find what he is good at and help him do it? Will people leave his idiosyncrasies alone and just let him twirl his damn hair?
You seem like a nice person. That is why I took the time to write you this letter instead of going to a manager. It is not my desire to get you in trouble, because I don’t think you meant any harm. I just think you didn’t know. That is why I am asking you, please, do not help to create a culture that devalues people with special needs. I am asking you to instead help me. Help me create a culture that sees them for everything they have to offer and everything they can do. I am asking you to help end the current culture of viewing people with special needs as less, a culture that defines them by what they can’t do, a culture that tries to make them act and look just like everyone else because God forbid they look or act different (God forbid they act “autistic”!) a culture that tries to “fix” them instead of helping them. I am asking you not to use them as a punch line, even if it is said in the nicest, most self-depreciating, charming way. I am asking you, please: Just. Use. Bonehead.
proud mom of awesome children, trying to make life better for them