DSAM Day 29: Disclaimer- Lily has Down syndrome

What is Normal?

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I recently heard a quote that, “Normal is just a setting on a dryer.” When I was in middle school I wanted to be normal. When I was in high school, I wanted to be different. As an adult I just want to be me.

One of the first things I learned from the Down syndrome community was how not to offend people by using the ‘wrong’ words. This is where I was told that the word normal is rude and offensive. The proper word to use when describing other children that did not have DS, was ‘typical’. The linguist in me immediately began analyzing what the words actually meant and which word was in fact more appropriate within the context I would refer to. The other part of me rolled my eyes.

I believe in educating people and being tolerant of those that differ from you in whatever way. I believe in being respectful. But I also realize that the majority of ‘typical’ people are not trying to be hurtful, degrading or intolerant when they misspeak.

I personally am not offended when people use the word, normal, to refer to children that do not have DS. When you ask someone what normal is most often they will laugh and say well nobody and nothing is really NORMAL. I still refer to other children as normal, knowing full well that there is no normal when it comes to humans or animals.

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I have noticed how difficult and awkward it is for people to ask questions and speak about Lily having DS. Most people seem so afraid that in their ignorance of DS, they will offend me and thus end up in an uncomfortable or embarrassing encounter so they look but don’t say anything or they speak around the topic. I believe there is merit in learning to lighten up a little- it is more important to me to normalize discussing DS then it is for people to use the correct terminology. I appreciate so much when people come up to me and ask does your daughter have DS? To me that gets rid of the stigma that Down syndrome is hush hush and something bad that we can’t ask about.

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In my almost 2 years of being Lily’s mom, I have learned that the more friendly and open I am about Lily, the more relaxed and forthcoming others are. When Lily and I are out and about, we are approached, often several times, by people wanting to extend their hellos to us and remark on what a doll Lily is. Sometimes they venture a comment regarding Down syndrome, sometimes not. I used to wonder if Lily received so much attention from strangers because they knew she had Down syndrome and were giving her ‘special’ treatment, Maybe they are and maybe they aren’t- Oz seems to generate quite a bit of attention for himself too- perhaps its because I have very happy, outgoing, and friendly children- who wouldn’t want to stop and enjoy a little of that? 🙂

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Now I am not saying that I do not sometimes feel offended or even hurt, I have days that I am much more sensitive about things than others. However, I return to the bigger picture. A world where Lily can evolve as herself, in the wide open, around all the ‘normal’ people without any hushed disclaimers.

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“Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.”

If only that were true.

 

I have always been a sensitive person- I try to be empathetic to others, am careful how I speak to people and treat others with respect. That was how I was raised. I think because of this, I have never been terribly offended by others because I can find empathy for their ignorance. When I first met Lily some of that changed.

First of all, becoming a mother made me more sensitive but less tolerating. More patient but less accommodating. More appreciative of life but less comfortable. Becoming Lily’s mother has made me more vocal, social and somewhat confrontational.

I am many things but one of the more important things I am is an ADVOCATE.

A majority of people with Down syndrome are classified as mentally retarded. Meaning their IQ is under 70 and they will need help navigating life. The word retarded may bring up several different images in your mind. When I first learned Lily will most likely be retarded, I thought of someone with a distant gaze, their mouth hung open and drooling. I have since learned that retarded can mean many things from my image to someone who needs a tutor in school to someone who just doesn’t have the ability for abstract thought.

I have also learned what retarded is not.

Retarded is NOT – someone behaving badly/ someone being silly/ someone making a poor choice/ etc.

Not many things offend me, but I am a mother to a little girl who will be retarded in some form. Can you imagine how I must feel knowing that?! How difficult it is to see her learning her colors and animals and in the back of my mind there is this dark cloud of knowledge that she will struggle with learning? How painful not knowing how this will affect her in life? Now imagine hearing people use the word retarded to refer to something foul, horrible, or annoying.

There have been a few words that we as a society have erradicted from our language and I am ready to see the casual, off-handed use of this one gone for good.

Understand that I know ‘what you mean’ and I know ‘you weren’t talking about Lily’ and I even know ‘that its just a word’ and ‘not personal’. But you should know that I am an ADVOCATE. Every time people misuse that word it creates a bias against my daughter. Most people will do anything to protect their children and I am no different.

The way you speak carries more weight than you realize and leaves a lasting impression on society as a whole.  Speak well – Lily is watching.

 

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