Family Matters

Defending Kids with Down Syndrome: A Life Lesson on Vacation

Teaching children to find the line between humor and disrespect

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On vacation last week in Hawaii, my family took a break from snorkeling azure waters to make a run for shave ice. (For the uninitiated, shave ice — Hawaiians drop the “d” — is the Rainbow State’s superior version of snow cones, powdery crystals that savvy foodies douse with exotic fruit syrups like passion fruit and guava.) Then we joined scores of other care-free kids and parents to stroll the main drag of the touristy former whaling town where we’d gone for our dessert fix.

The sidewalks were packed. We saw Steven Tyler in a shark-tooth shop (for real!). My husband spotted my older daughter’s first-grade teacher. And my 10-year-old son wandered into a store targeted ingeniously for boys his age, with whoopee cushions and T-shirts featuring silly, inane slogans.

As he laughed his way through the shop, I wandered in after him only to come face to face with what can best be described as the section of the store that makes fun of people with intellectual disabilities. One shirt read “No, I’m not retarded.” The other had a cutesie drawing of a schoolbus and was captioned, “My mom tells me I ride the little bus because I’m special.”

I froze. I looked around to see if any other adults had read the T-shirts and shared my disbelief. As I was still processing the messages on the shirts, another family ambled in. With them were their children, including a son with Down syndrome.

(MOREWill a New Mass. Law Discourage Women from Aborting Fetuses with Down Syndrome?)

I felt panicky. As a mother, I wanted to turn those T-shirts around so that the other mom, the one who gave birth to a boy with Down syndrome and is doing her best to raise him in a society that is not always kind, wouldn’t see them and be forced to worry on vacation about the way our culture treats children like hers.

But I wasn’t quick enough. The family was heading straight toward those shirts. Flustered, I barked at my son, who hadn’t seen the shirts, to come outside. “We can not stay in this store,” I told him sharply.

My son and my daughters, ages 5 and 7, were confused. “This store is making fun of people with Down syndrome,” I told them. What’s Down syndrome? asked my kids. I explained to them that people with Down syndrome are born with an extra chromosome and that chromosomes help determine how people think and act and look, what they like and dislike, what they’re good at and what’s a struggle for them. The extra chromosome that people with Down syndrome carry makes their brains work differently than most people, I told my kids; it also makes it more likely that they’ll have trouble with their hearts. They are slower to learn things so that a 10-year-old with Down syndrome may or may not know how to read. They may grow up and not be able to live on their own and get married. Or, I told them, if they get the right support and help they need, they could also go to college and have their own children.

(MOREWhy Down Syndrome Is on the Decline)

I didn’t tell them that children born today with Down syndrome enter a world of early interventions and expert medical care that continues to improve the quality of their lives. Nor did I share that this is happening just as a battery of new prenatal tests are increasingly able to detect the condition earlier and earlier in pregnancy, allowing women to potentially terminate affected pregnancies sooner. That was far too sophisticated a conversation to have. Instead, we focused on how to treat people with respect regardless of what they look like.

Being different is not a reason for ridicule. It was an important lesson, albeit one I wish I hadn’t had to teach. If you see someone being mistreated, I told my children, you stand up for that person.

I wish I’d done that, wish I’d had more presence of mind at the time and marched up to the saleswoman to let her know that messages of disrespect directed toward people with mental retardation are unacceptable.

That’s exactly what the mother of the boy with Down syndrome did, her voice trembling, as my family and I watched from the open-air entryway.

As one mom to another, I couldn’t help but tear up. I offered a big smile and thanked her for speaking out as she walked toward the sunset with her family, holding her son’s hand tightly.

(MOREDown Syndrome: With Breakthroughs in Testing, a Choice Becomes Tougher)

23 comments
BubblyTrifle
BubblyTrifle

I came across this page looking for ideas of things to play with my Downs cousin, who is coming to stay today. This has deeply upset me, as we think the world of each other. Being autistic myself, I am partially aware of what he goes through, and I have one thing to say. 


We are not stupid or simple minded- we simply see the world in a different way. We need help in the same way as a partially sighted person needs glasses, or a deaf person a hearing aid.


Thank you to all the considerate people in this world, and I'm deeply disappointed by all those against people with learning difficulties.

YOURMOM100
YOURMOM100

Just some food for thought...who funds all the programs for special needs kids and adults?  EVERYONE AND ANYONE WHO WORKS.  

And you say 90% of babies with down syndrome are terminated and it's an abomination...which is your opinion and entitled too.

1 question...if all those 90% were not terminated...how would all the things to help people with down syndrome be able to function and be funded?  

Everyday all I hear about is funding being cut and trying to get more $ to fund these programs to help people with down syndrome   So if the # of people with down sydrome rose 90%...what happens to the funding which is SOO badly needed?  It get's smaller by 90% :(  Sad but these are the facts :(

I understand you opinion and why it upsets you, but sometimes you have to evaluate the WHOLE picture and before you are SOO quick to judge anyone for chosing to terminate a down syndrome pregnancy, think about that.  Maybe they realize they do not have the funds, support, lifetime of time/commitment etc to do so...and do not want to put their child's livelihood on society to fund and raise.  I'M NOT SAYING ALL DO, just saying not everyone can handle it or have the $.  Just saying.

Angieexx
Angieexx

THATS HORRIBLE ! I feel so bad 4 youhhh ! Follow meh on twitter! ANGIEEXX! 

Sulee19
Sulee19

My younger brother is Down Syndrome. I go on field trips with him when I have to - its nice to see most kids in his class try to include him and understand his disability through asking me questions. But then, like this article, I do occasionally stumble upon the t-shirt jokes and people who think  it's okay and funny to mock people with disabilities so publicly and openly. Some people tell me that its just comedy but I can't help being offended.

Jen32258
Jen32258

I had a similar situation when I was in Key West this past October for a friend's wedding.  We came across a T-shirt shop that had the "short bus" decal on display in the front window.  I was furious - but decided to stay calm and simply asked the guy working the shop to come over.  I asked the guy if he knew the owner of the shop and if they would consider taking that shirt down. He looks at it and asks me "what this means?" (with a thick Italian accent) So when i tell him it's making fun of kids with disabilities he gets this horrified look on his face and went running into the store to call the owner of the store. Only a few minutes later, he was motioning me inside to watch him take down the two that were on display in the store and then tore up all the decals sitting in a box waiting to iron-on shirts. He introduced himself as Ray and apologized profusely - begging us to believe that he had no idea what that meant - they didn't have "short buses" in Italy so he had no idea.  So cool, huh? THAT is how its supposed to work, my friends!

Before we left, we walked by the same shop a few days later and saw that the one on display in the front window, too! When we saw Ray  - he came up and gave my friend and I big hugs and told us that next time we come down to the keys he hopes to have his own store and said that he gives us his word that he will never allow shirts like that to be sold

rrkf15c
rrkf15c

The only thing more offensive then a T-shirt mocking someone with disabilities is the thought that a pregnancy should be terminated.  A person with disabilities is an amazing gift, one that will pull you from a selfish state of mind into a world of great love.  I have a 9 year daughter with trisomy 9, very similar to trisomy 21, aka Down Syndrome.  It's a hardship to raise her, but the joys far outweigh the pain.  

As for the fools who sell offensive T-shirts?  Who cares?  The joke is on them.

dgdoesstuff
dgdoesstuff

Every time I see stats on downs syndrome kids, I wish downs could be diagnosed at 2 years old and autistim could be diagnosed at 2-weeks-from-conception. 

That'd be a lot more helpful to society.

BradPitzele
BradPitzele

It is a sad corner of the world that thinks this is okay.  If a person does not have basic dignity and respect, what do they have?

lovethatmax
lovethatmax

As a parent of a child who cannot defined himself against insults like this, I would have been outraged if I saw those shirts in that store. Sadly, these t-shirts  aren't uncommon. In September, an entertainment store named Hastings was selling an "I ride a yellow short bus" shirt and Zazzle had eight pages of shirts involving the word "retard." After I wrote about it and other parents spoke up, Hastings removed the shirts. You just reminded me to check Zazzle, and nearly all of those shirts are gone. As for people with intellectual disability owning the shirts, I think they do a disservice to people who are not cognitively aware enough to get the joke. My son has enough social challenges to overcome without stereotypes.

TriciaZ
TriciaZ

The best way to defend people with Down Syndrome would be to let them be born.  About 90% are aborted and are not given their basic right to life.  Demeaning messages on t-shirts are shameful, but nothing compared to this genocide.  Everytime I see a family with their Down Syndrome child - their beautiful Down Syndrome child - I say a prayer.  Please join me and pray for an end to this needless, heartless Slaughter of the Innocents.

mfjlewis
mfjlewis

I am confused. On one hand, the author seems to be saying that mocking those with Down Syndrome is wrong, but on the other hand, she thinks we have the right to kill them before they are born. How is this logical? 

It seems to me that what she's saying is it's wrong to dehumanize someone through public spectacle, but if we eliminate the "problem" quietly and discreetly, that's perfectly fine.

MarkWLeach
MarkWLeach

Thank you both for your actions and education of your children, and in writing this column drawing attention to one of the few remaining minority groups that civil society still accepts being the subject of ridicule. For all of the comments arguing that these shirts make fun of the person wearing them, the reason they are being made fun of is because they are being likened to an individual with intellectual disabilities. I do not see that many shirts displayed and sold to the public likening a white person to a black person in a perjorative way, or a straight person to a gay person, etc. This is because civil society does not accept such ridicule, but, as demonstrated by the t-shirts in the Hawaiian shop, the regular use of the word "retard" or "retarded" as punchlines on Comedy Central and by public figures, and the tolerance of school officials, community leaders, and parents when that term is used as an insult, it perpetuates a systematic denigration of the dignity of our fellow citizens who happen to be more obviously differently abled. Only through measures, both large and small, will this tide be turned, just as it has for every other group that has been put-down and discriminated against. Thank you for taking those measures and writing about them.

BarbaraCoreyFryman
BarbaraCoreyFryman

Thank you for turning around and leaving. I hope in the future others who may not have a family member who has Down syndrome will speak to the clerk as well. I know "in the moment" we all forget to stand up for what is right, instead choosing simply not to participate in the wrong. However,  now that you are prepared, and those who read this article are as well, please do speak up. 

Wrathbrow, it's not funny because those who are being put down are not able to defend themselves. I know it seems harmless. Try standing next to a person with Down syndrome when someone casually claims to ride the short bus because of something they did that was forgetful or stupid. I doubt you will feel the remark so harmless.

pdschloss
pdschloss

"Nor did I share that this is happening just as a battery of new prenatal tests are increasingly able to detect the condition earlier and earlier in pregnancy, allowing women to potentially terminate affected pregnancies sooner"


Um, I suspect the child you saw and their parents would much rather see a t-shirt mocking them than this form of modern "compassion".  It's better to be alive and mocked than dead and forgotten.  What a screwed up society.

LeticiaVelasquez
LeticiaVelasquez

Can't we find other ways to laugh, wrathbrow? You forget that some of us find this very painful on behalf of those we love. 

Bonnie, thank you for educating your children on tolerance, and now educating the rest of us. For the past 6 years, my friends and I have been trying to raise awareness of just how hostile a world my ten year old daughter Christina was born into, a world where the majority of babies like her are aborted while heartless shops and comedians make money mocking her. 

We used to make fun of ethnic minorities, but we leaned better. Time for another lesson, one I like to term "genetic diversity". 

Genetic diversity in biology is a good thing, the more diversity the healthier the species. But somehow we got into a rut with Down syndrome, we routinely reject those with a diverse number of chromosomes. Way back in the thirties, when eugenics was popular. We determined that they had miserable lives, but as Bonnie aptly demonstrates, this is no longer true.

 There has never been a better time in history to be born with Down syndrome. In addition to widely available free therapies and medical procedures, there has been a research breakthrough in helping those with Down syndrome. Dr William Mobley of UC San Diego said that within 8 years he expects to see a drug for Down syndrome to greatly improve their cognition, possibly making it normal. So once our kids can think and speak and do everything else just as well as typical kids do, will we finally grown up and learn to accept that genetic diversity is a beautiful thing?  

I certainly hope so. Our society has no idea what we are missing when we reject such wonderful human beings. 

wrathbrow
wrathbrow

There is a difference from making jokes about others, and ourselves that are meant to make people laugh versus to hurt others. Tee Shirts with politically incorrect sayings have been and continue to be part of the point. If a normal young adult wears the tee shirt that says "My mom tells me I ride the little bus because I’m special." that would be them making fun of themselves and biting humor done without hate can make all humans closer, and can (if done right) make those with the disability feel more apart of humanity.

My brother is hearing disabled, and we always felt better about someone who made fun of themselves. When I was not listening he we offer me his hearing aids, smile and say: what are you, deaf? One of his favorite jokes and it made both of us more comfortable, and felt more human about the differences we all have.

That is how humor works. It has a lot of potential power, to hurt or hinder. My concern would be that you made your children think that most humor, regardless of how it might be used, is an evil thing.

mfjlewis
mfjlewis

@YOURMOM100 - So you are saying that lack of funding is a reasonable justification for murder?

wrathbrow
wrathbrow

@BarbaraCoreyFryman  

The one tee-shirt if a person wears it is about making fun of themselves. My sister in law has a friend that is mentally handicapped. She has a very old shirt that says: I'm with stupid. Her friend loves that shirt because she points it at her boyfriend and others. It makes him laugh to know that others are making fun of themselves or others and not him.

Tee shirts, sayings, words, they are all just tools. It depends how and when people use them. Would you rather we hide the I'm with Stupid shirt and make an issue of it instead of all laughing about it and giving that mentally challenged person some laughter and feeling better about themselves?

YellowKid
YellowKid

@pdschloss I am in 100% agreement with you.  (Can we give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she was listing it as a negative part of the sophisticated conversation to have later?)

"Terminate affected pregnancies sooner"?!  You mean kill the child because it is different.

Ask ANY child with down syndrome if they would have rather been KILLED than have their life (abuse from small minded people included) and you will always receive the same answer!  They love their life...and many live life better than we "higher functioning" people do.

BillRosetti
BillRosetti

Abosolutely correct--I grew up with a down syndrome aunt, you need levity, and if you take a shirt or words as an insult you've accepted the poison... bottom line is all of us right or wrong say things that may be hurtful to others, should we just not speak.  People are just to uptight.  I've had many occasions where people made fun of my aunt, or looked at her differently, I don't blame them, she's different in a special way, but people shouldn't have to pay for their thoughts, it their thought, and its your fault if you let their thought effect your life.