Her unsteady hands grasp tightly to the edge of her lunch tray. Step by step she carefully navigates her way toward the table that is tucked back into the corner of the cafeteria . . . the table designated for the special needs population at her school. She feels the stares of her peers measuring her as she tries her best to balance her food and the milk carton that teeters on the edge of the tray. Hard as she tries, the tray slips from her fingers and spills to the floor. And while she is disappointed she doesn’t make it all the way to the table without spilling her tray, she feels victorious. She knows she made it ten steps closer to the table than she did the day before.
He sets the football in the cradle and gradually backs himself away from the ball. Step after step, he counts to himself . . . one, two, three, four, seven, eleven. His counting has improved tremendously over the past few months and his mother beams with pride as she watches through the kitchen window. He takes a deep breath and charges full steam ahead ready to kick the ball into the stratosphere. As he draws closer to the ball, his pace slows down as he carefully aligns himself with the football. With arms extended for balance and a grin from ear to ear — he kicks! This time he makes contact. And while the ball does little more than roll out of the cradle, it is a victory for him.
As our friends at the Special Olympics say, “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” For the 200 million people in our world living with an intellectual disability, being brave in the attempt is a victory in itself. This creed not only applies to sports, it applies to life. For a person living with an intellectual disability, everyday presents obstacles and challenges. Everyday requires determination and perseverance. Everyday is a celebration of bravery.
This philosophy is at the core of why the use of the word “retarded” must end. For too many years, our society has casually used the “r-word” to describe behaviors that fall short of expectations. It’s used to describe mistakes, faults and imperfections. It’s used when someone misses the mark or fails to accomplish the task. It’s used when one awkwardly falls down carrying a lunch tray or misses making contact with the football.
As the proud mother of two children with Down syndrome, I have watched my children struggle to learn new things . . . to get dressed, to feed themselves, to climb stairs, to make friends, to catch a ball. And while we certainly celebrate the moments when they succeed, we also celebrate the fact that they have the grit to try. They may not always win, but they are always brave in the attempt. And when my children’s greatest accomplishments become the punch line to someone else’s joke, they are robbed of their dignity.