I followed them into the store, they, to a one, briefly looked back and saw me. Most dismissed me right away only a couple let their eyes linger and their giggles bubble forth. There were about eight of them. Boys and girls, all in their very early teens and all out for an afternoon in the mall. I had seen the store before I saw them heading there, it's one where I wanted to pick up a gift for a friend, and when I noticed them, I nearly turned around. But, I reminded myself, this is my mall too, this is my space too, it is my right to be here. I think I might shock you if I told you how often I have to remind myself of those simple facts.
Once in the store I saw that there was a mom there with a boy, maybe 8, with an intellectual disability. He saw the other kids come into the store and made a bee line for the back of the store. His mother called to him, and called to him, and called to him to come to the cash register and pay for his purchase. I'm sure that she heard the kids chatting amongst themselves loudly about 'special needs' and though they didn't say the 'r word' they communicated their view of him as other and as different and as less.
In their chat, they mentioned having been dropped off at the mall after church. I would not normally mention this however if you are going to be loud about your church attendance then you need to realize that you have chosen to represent your faith and your god, their casual and nearly joyful cruelty was terrible to see.
Mom wanted out of the store, her son didn't want to leave the back of the store. Joe comes in at this point and I have an opportunity to do something. I could see that mom didn't want a scene, she didn't want to confront the kids, she just wanted to make the purchase and get the hell out of the store. It had become toxic at the entry of the freshly churched children.
I rolled over by them and began telling Joe, loud enough for them to hear, what was going on. That these kids were mocking a disabled boy and, of course, me too, by how they spoke about disability with such disrespect. They heard me. I thought they'd care. They didn't. I had thought that I could shame them. I couldn't. They didn't care what someone like me said, what someone like me thought.
They also didn't stop. They began, under their breath, mimicking mom's desperate plea for her son to come to the cash register. I rolled over by him and then rolled back towards where his mother stood. He followed me, head down, like he was hiding behind me. There are times I am so freaking thankful to be tall and fat and in a wheelchair. This was one of those times.
Item is bought, mom and son are gone.
I'm in line with my purchase behind these kids. The clerk serves them and then wishes them a good day. I didn't understand why the clerk hadn't done something, he's the one in charge of the space, he's the one with the obvious power. So, I asked. I asked him if he'd heard the kids making fun of the young boy with Down Syndrome. He said that he had. He said that it disgusted him and that behaviour like that makes him want to vomit.
There was a truth and a vehemence in his words that surprised me. He went on to say that he was in the special needs class in his school for many years, he told me of his own diagnosis and a bit of his journey. He said that he got teased daily, but that it wasn't at all like his classmates got. He said that when it happens in the store he just freezes, like he's 11 again, and alone and not knowing what to do. I immediately felt sorry for having, in my mind judged him for his inaction. Everyone has a story. Everyone has a journey.
I made my purchase and wished him a good day.
He looked at me and said, "I should have done something shouldn't I?"
I said, "You served the mom and her child with respect and with care, you were the only person in this store who modelled for those kids what dignity looks like. I think that's good, don't you?"
He nodded, but he didn't believe me.
Next time he may be able to do something more.
Between now and then, I hope he asks a superior how to handle such situations.
Meanwhile, you're right - and it's too bad there wasn't an adult from their church to call those cruel teens to account for their very public sins. Lack of adult supervision is what allows these things to continue to happen; children out of control and with their peers are egging each other on. I would have been so ashamed had one of them been mine.
The clerk shared his story with you and the two of you talked about what happened. So your reaching out to him helped him move from 'frozen' to opening up a bit. As you have written so well, transformation takes times.....and we humans move in meandering circles, not straight lines.
I'm so glad you and Joe were in the store..for the little boy, for his mom, and for the clerk.
Maybe one of those kids will have some qualms of conscience. At that age belonging to the group is so important that kids do stuff that they wouldn't usually do, and don't continue it very long, either.
But, of course, the damage is done.
Can I ask you a question that I often wonder when I'm reading your post? I often see you referring to people you see in the community as having intellectual disabilities. Often, it appears that these are people you don't know, so you're making a guess based on physical appearance, or perhaps behavior. In this case, you might have made this guess based on facial characteristics of Down syndrome.
I'm a teacher, I work with students with disabilities. About half of my students have Down syndrome. Many of them self-identify as having intellectual disabilities. Others may be identified as such by their parents or their educational teams. But some of my students (both with and without Down syndrome) don't identify with the term ID. That may be a matter of personal preference, or it may be because they don't meet criteria because their skills are too high, or because they are young and their parents have decided to delay testing. At school, one thing we really emphasize is that they can choose how they describe themselves and identify themselves to the world.
It's not that I think labels are a bad thing. However, I feel pretty strongly that people should be able to choose the labels that they identify with and want to use for themselves.
Given that, it surprises me when I see you use a specific label, for someone who doesn't seem to have communicated to you the label that they choose for themselves. I'd love to hear your thoughts on why you choose to do that.
Not all people with Down have below average intelligence/IQ scores. People with Down have earned college degrees. I know of one person with Down who is a veterinarian and that's really hard intellectual work to get there. While most people with Down have ID (there's a really wide range) it is not an automatic given.
My teenage cousin has Down and I'm eager to see what she chooses to do with her life because she is bright and has lots of dreams and the ability to pursue them.
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