Each morning you get dressed and head downstairs for breakfast. Unfortunately, your mother softly tells you that the shirt you have chosen is probably not appropriate for the job you’ll soon be heading to. Disappointed, but accustomed to not always being able to have your way, you head back to your bedroom and make what everyone will think is a better selection. You do not realize that your mother is simply trying to protect you from the possible remarks that you might have to endure on the city bus as you ride to your job.
But right now you’re back in the kitchen and ready for breakfast. As always, you decide on a bowl of your favorite cereal. Your mother smiles at you with a mixture of love and patience as she picks up the paper towels she will need after you struggle to pour the milk into your bowl. Your tremor has gotten somewhat worse over the years and every morning like clockwork a certain portion of the milk ends up on the cabinet, but she knows that you want to make your own breakfast and so she waits.
The inevitable happens, the spill is cleaned up and you both sit down at the table together. You talk about what your day will be like at the grocery store. You have been a bagger there for several years and you really love your job and most of the people you work with. They have accepted you even though a few accommodations had to be made so that you could understand everything that your position entailed, but your job coach was a big help and you now feel very comfortable there.
One of your favorite parts of work is meeting the customers. Many now recognize you and call you by name. You love that! For much of your life people seemed to ignore you or look the other way when you came into a room. You never understood this because you have always wanted to have friends and you enjoy helping people. It makes you feel great to think that people know who you are and that they actually want to talk with you…But in order to get to work, where life is satisfying, you have to take the bus, where life is not so good.
Your mother is getting older and since her illness she can’t drive anymore – so the bus is your only option. Some days it’s not too bad. On those occasions people just act like you are not really there. They pretend they don’t see you or they turn away as you struggle to get down the aisle with your halting gait, the result of a difficult birth 40 plus years ago. However, you dread the bad days. It is a terrible feeling when people snicker and laugh at you. They point or just stare at you like you’re not even a person. For some reason they seem to think that you don’t understand what they are saying, but there is nothing wrong with your hearing and every insensitive word hurts.
Even after all these years you can still remember the first time someone called you a RETARD. It was another child on the playground when you were very young. You had never heard the word before so you had no idea what it meant, but you were surprised by the cruel explosion of laughter it provoked. When you got home you innocently asked your mother about it. You can still recall the pain that came over her face and the tears that began to fill her eyes. As gently as she could she tried to explain why some people might wrongly think that you were different and that, although it shouldn’t, it could make them feel uncomfortable and therefore they used mean words that were thoughtless and hateful. At that age you didn’t exactly understand everything she was telling you, but you did realize that this word must be an awful thing to make your mother feel so bad.
Unfortunately, over the next few decades it was a word you heard much too often. Over time you learned to ignore it and to avoid those who made fun of you. At first you thought about calling them names in return but you didn’t want to hurt their feelings. You did not want them to feel the way you did. Occasionally someone would have the courage to speak up and tell the others to stop teasing you. That was the most wonderful feeling in the world. It made you feel like someone cared about you and that maybe you were important.
The power of that word, just 6 letters long, was heartbreaking. Even on cable TV and in the movies you would hear it. Why? Why would people use a word on purpose that they knew would hurt someone else? You can still remember the night you were watching your favorite actor being interviewed on a TV show and the overwhelming sadness and disappointment you felt when she said that a particular group of people were “just a bunch of retards”. You stopped liking her and you’ve never watched a single one of her movies since.
But you try not to worry too much about what others think of you. Each day you have hope that people will be a little nicer and more understanding about your situation in life. You truly believe that if they would only make the effort to get to know you as a person they would not focus on the tremor, the unsteadiness and the slower speech. Instead they would discover that you are a good guy. You have a lot more in common than they might think. You like the same restaurants, go to the same malls, watch the same sports and worship the same God. You love people and you want them to love you too. You are convinced that human beings are not really so different when it comes to the important things.
Over the years there have been many discussions between you and your mom about how unfair it is to have someone’s entire life defined by one cruel label. You now understand that it is the people who use hurtful words that have the problem – not you. They are the ones who don’t get it. You feel sorry for them…So you have decided it is not going to hold you back. You will live your life the best you can. You will do the things you want to do and you will make as many friends as you possibly can. You will simply enjoy being the person you are. After all, that is all anyone can do.