‘R-word’, thank you for the big life moment.

I did not have experience with people with disabilities until I was in college.

No, I take that back, when I was in Girl Scouts in elementary school, we made teddy bears and brought them to a program that served children with severe developmental disabilities.  I was scared to death.  I knew that I was supposed to feel good about my deed, and I think I did, but I was terrified.  I was not prepared (and it is possible that my Girl Scout leaders talked to us and prepared us the best they could), but I was not truly prepared emotionally for that experience in my life at that time.

In college, I dabbled around the circle of helping others in the search for my major.  I had declared my major as Occupational Therapy.  Then I enrolled in Physics.  Not my strongest subject to say the least.  Through my professor telling me I was ‘thinking too hard’ regarding my confusion on the equation requiring the speed of the bug on a record player going the opposite direction than the record, and my good friend having a crying breakdown due to the stress of the class, I found a new major.  My Physics break down friend came to me very excited, telling me about a major called Therapeutic Recreation.  She told me about the opportunities, the exciting courses, and endless possibilities.  I met with the coordinator of the program later that week, and was sold.  Disability awareness and learning about specific types of disabilities was a large focus of my college work.  I learned about person first terminology, putting people first before their disability.  I learned to focus on so much more about a person with a disability’s abilities than the ‘dis’ that unfortunately can define that person in some people’s eyes.  My major changed me.  Using recreation as a therapy to improve the quality of life of people within unlimited populations was amazing.  It changed my outlook, and opened up a whole new world of thinking.

A couple of years back, I sat for the CBEST exam.  I had not taken a test in over 15 years at least.  I studied hard.  Math and English terms and functions that I had not needed to remember in my day to day life.  There was a written portion of the test though.  And of course the subject was not given until you sat down at the computer for your test.  My subject was the all so vague ‘Tell about a moment in time that changed your life’ (or something to that manner).  I instantly knew my moment.

I was still in college, working for a community based recreation program that served adults and children with developmental disabilities.  We had taken a day trip to Santa Cruz Boardwalk.  It was a popular trip where we took a chartered bus, then split up into small groups once we got there.  As we were walking along the sidewalk towards the entrance, a black Camero slowed down as it drove next to us, and the driver yelled out his window ‘Oh great, the f****ing retards are here today!’ and then drove off laughing with his friend riding shotgun as his mullet blew in the breeze of his open car windows.  My insides panicked.  A ridiculously uncomfortable feeling took over my body.  One of the young women that was a participant in my small group looked up at me and said with tears in her eyes ‘was he talking about us?’.  I only had a split second.  Where did I lie?  Which side of the fence was I on?  I had been going through the motions, advocating for people with disabilities, but where did I really lie when it all came down?  This was not some cool guy that yelled at us from his Camero, but what if he had been someone I had wanted to fit in with, where did I lie?  It only took about 1 second in real life time as my feelings bounced around in my head like a pin ball game.  I was with these guys.  I looked down at my participant, and replied to her question as honest and the best I could, “That type of person doesn’t matter.  He’s mean.  We are here to have fun.  We paid for our tickets, now lets go have a blast today.’  She looked me up and down, almost to make sure that I meant what I said and that I wasn’t just pacifying her.  And then she smiled, and we moved on.

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That moment, as little as it may seem reading it, changed my life.  There’s a difference between going through the motions and then actually believing in the motions.  My kids don’t say the R-word.  They know its not ok to say.  I didn’t know that calling someone the R-word was wrong or hurtful to others until I happened to learn about disabilities in college.  Since then, I have taught Disability Awareness workshops for governmental departments, worked in mental health settings, and community settings that serve adults with developmental disabilities.  Mental Retardation is a diagnosis, not an adjective.  And further, that diagnosis has been replaced with Intellectual disability in the DSM V, see below:

‘Intellectual disability is a condition diagnosed before age 18 that includes below-average intellectual function and a lack of skills necessary for daily living.  In the past, the term mental retardation was used to describe this condition. This term is no longer used.’

I’m not writing this to piss anyone off, or to tell people what to do.  This was my experience, and it was big for me.  It has shaped how I raise my kids, which has allowed for them to be comfortable around people with disabilities, hoping they too see their abilities much more than the ‘dis’ that can be focused on.

Recently, my 8 year old daughter and I were walking through the hall of her school.  Out of nowhere she asked ‘hey mom, if someone is in a wheelchair, how do they get upstairs?’  I got to explain to her that the elevator at the school is for that exact purpose, and that in the past when there has been a student in a wheelchair, they have a buddy ride the elevator with them when they go upstairs.  She thought for a minute and said ‘oh.’  I have no idea what goes through an 8 year olds mind, or why some of those thoughts come to surface and said out loud.  I was silently proud though.  With the work I do with people with disabilities, I don’t tend to make a big deal about it.  It’s my work, normal stuff to me and my family.  When things come up, and questions arise, we talk, but I don’t constantly run around preaching advocacy at home.  So I was very proud that she came up with that thought herself.  Wondering out loud about the inclusion of others.

We were at the beach a couple of weeks back, and the visitors center had a beach wheelchair (large wheels which don’t get stuck in the sand) available for use to their visitors.  Up in the mountains over the summer, we saw a specialized mat/carpet laid down from the smooth surface of the wide trail across the rocks and sand to the edge of the river for wheelchair access.  My kids response to these adaptions, as well as many that we see, was ‘cool!’  As we talked about those items, I pointed out to my kids that if I use a wheelchair in my life, I’m still going to want to visit my favorite places such as the beach, and the rivers up in the mountains, and we are so lucky that those adaptive items are in place.  How lucky we are that so many see the value in the inclusion of all people.

Make sure to click on the link below for a great article on the R-Word from one of my favorite Scrubs actors (Dr. Cox!):

More on Therapeutic Recreation: