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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The word we don't say anymore

Even when I started writing this blog, about 8 years ago, it was still marginally acceptable to use what I will now call the "R" word.  Now, the acceptable term is "intellectual disability".  In many ways, that's a better term.  The R word meant behind, and implied that those it referred to would someday catch up.  Intellectual disability doesn't have that implication.

In general, I am not too hung up on semantics.  Part of the reason is that it often takes quite a while for the general public to catch up with those in whatever community it is that creates the word.  It is sometimes easier just to tell people straight out---"Janey is ....."  I have done that, a few times.  Generally, I resort to that when I heard something along the lines of "But all kids with autism are really, really smart!  You just need to unlock it!  Have you tried (insert latest hip treatment here)?"

However, as the years go by, I realize that both the incorrect term and the more correct one are pretty meaningless.  Yes, in many ways, Janey is intellectually disabled.  There is no question there.  Despite many, many years of teaching, she doesn't know her letters, or numbers.  She can't read or write, or really use a writing utensil at all.  She speaks mainly in short, familiar phrases or echolalia.  If her IQ was able to be tested, it would be very low.  But those academic areas are just a small part of who she is.

I don't like to think about it, but the truth is, before I had kids, I thought having a child that was the R word would be the one thing I simply couldn't deal with.  I would guess a lot of people think that.  I felt it would be the ultimate tragedy.  Now, I can say with complete honestly that I was wrong.  In day to day life, Janey's intellectual disability makes little difference in her life.  It matters far less than her happiness, her health, her safety.

I also get now that there are many, many kinds of smart.  I often say to Janey "You're so smart!" and totally mean it.  She is smarter than I am in a lot of ways.  She dances far better than I ever will.  She is good at using the computer and iPad.  She can run a lot further than I ever could.  She has more sophisticated taste buds.  She is less socially anxious.  She is a million times more musical than I am.  She has a wonderful sense of humor.  She has more fashion sense than I do.  I used to think, honestly, when people said there were many kind of intelligence, they were saying that to somehow cover up the fact that whoever they were talking about didn't have "real" intelligence.  I hate it that I used to think that.  It's not true.

So, you might ask, why even admit, why address the fact that Janey does indeed have an intellectual disability?  Well, because it does make a difference in terms of what the future holds for her.  I believe in living in reality.  The kinds of smart Janey has are not the kinds of smart that will make her able to succeed academically.  She will never get a high school diploma.  She will never go to college.  And beyond academics, she will never hold a real job, or live on her own.  And I hear already a chorus, probably mostly from my own mind, saying "You are assuming a lot there!  Don't you have hope?"  And the truth is, at this point, I think reality is more important than hope, at least hope for things that there are a vanishingly small chance will ever happen.

There are kids with autism, including non-verbal or low verbal kids, who don't have an intellectual disability.  That is extremely important to keep in mind.  But I think it's also important to admit there are kids that are indeed intellectually disabled. Sometimes, I feel like at some high level, it might be almost a conspiracy to not admit that, because not admitting it lets us as a society not truly deal with a future that is coming.  Janey will need lifelong care, and so will many, many others like her.  We can hope that isn't the case all we want, but it's reality.  Until we admit that as a society, we will not be planning for it.

In a bigger sense, I wish everyone could realize what it took having Janey for me to realize.  Being intellectually disabled is NOT A TRAGEDY.  It's not something so horrible that we have to pretend it doesn't even exist, have to say that somehow it will magically go away in the future.  It's not the end of the world.  Janey is one heck of a terrific person, despite being the word we don't say any more.
My terrific Janey


Jessica Tarrand said...

I was deeply moved by this post. Thank you!

David Fee said...

"But all kids with autism are really, really smart! You just need to unlock it! Have you tried (insert latest hip treatment here)?"

Yeah, seems to the popular sociable response by people who've only heard about the about higher end of the spectrum. It's a akin to my parent's generation using the phrase, "He's a credit to his race." Meant as a compliment but you don't that one anymore.

"She has more fashion sense than I do." Really? I don't remember any your posts mentioning that and I read all of your posts.

"Sometimes, I feel like at some high level, it might be almost a conspiracy to not admit that, because not admitting it lets us as a society not truly deal with a future that is coming."

Americans only like to see the positive side of things. We like happy endings of movies or least some conclusion wrapping up the film. We like to hear about the person achieved greatness while damning those who tried hard and failed as losers.

"Being intellectually disabled is NOT A TRAGEDY."

I don't know if my daughter will ever realize she's not like everyone else. Hate to say it but ignorance can be bliss as I don't think there will ever be much pressure on her to study hard, get a job, get married. . . I've been to a lot of countries and some of them weren't rich nations: India, the Philippines, Indonesia. . . you would be surprised how much happiness you can see with people living full lives without a fraction of the possession even poor Americans have.