Why I’m Speaking Out About Comic Strips Like This One

When perusing the funny pages in the daily paper, I have few expectations. I look for a quick chuckle, and maybe enjoy a good a punchline. The last thing I expect is to feel like I actually got punched.

That’s what happened on September 14th when I read this B.C. comic strip. At first I thought to myself, “Jana, quit overreacting! It’s just a joke. It isn’t personal.”

Screenshot taken from Johnhartstudios.com

Two men standing next to sign that says “SLOW, CHILDREN.” Man 1: “What do you think of the new sign?” Man 2: “What’s it for?” Man 1: “There’s a public school up ahead.” Man 2: “You’re one comma away from a social media firestorm.”

But it feels personal. When you have a loved one with special needs like my 9-year-old daughter, Mary, who has Down syndrome, jokes like this comic strip don’t have the same context anymore. “Slow children” street sign punctuation jokes are not worthy of laughs.

I don’t want you to find it not-funny out of pity. That makes it more painful. I want you to stop laughing at these jokes and stop making these jokes because of your compassion. Compassion for what we go through as parents. Compassion for how hard our children have to work to do things that come naturally to others. Compassion for the long list of medical issues that can accompany cognitive challenges.

I am not perfect. Before having my daughter, I remember being the kind of jerk who would make the lazy, mindless joke involving the r-word or some insensitive short bus joke. Thank goodness for my daughter. She taught me compassion.

There was a moment just last month when I was upset and Mary marched right up to me and held me. She whispered in my ear while she rubbed my back, “It’s OK, Mommy. It’s OK.” She will likely never be a mother herself, but her instinct to care for others is a model we should all strive for. I need to be the best mother for her, therefore I am constantly asking myself how I can be better.

As the saying goes, once we know better, we do better; that’s been my mantra since Mary’s birth.

This brings me to the crux of this piece: Why is this cartoon not funny? Why are jokes poking fun of people with intellectual disabilities not funny? How can my experiences help you to know better?

When you use individuals with special needs as the punchline to your joke, even if you “don’t mean it like that,” it still hurts. Essentially you are reducing our story — our struggles, our daily advocacy, our milestones — to an ignorant zinger. And I say “our” because it’s not just about my daughter being minimized by these jokes; it’s offensive to the parents of these children, too!

Being a parent is already a full-time commitment. Being a parent of a child with special needs is a full-time job on a mission. When I add hours of weekly speech therapy so kids don’t make fun of the way my daughter talks, or spend thousands of dollars and endless hours on cardiology appointments, ENT evaluations, sleep studies, eye exams and multiple surgeries, it becomes our story.

So I ask you, as Mary’s mom, as someone who used to think it was harmless: Step back and see that jokes do have consequences. Next time you want to tell a friend they should be riding a short bus, please consider families like ours and those we’ve met through our journey with Mary. Stop and consider “slow children” in the perspective of Mary spending years in occupational therapy learning how to write her name. Stop and consider that “riding the short bus” is a reality for so many families whose children are in wheelchairs or have complicated medical conditions. Consider having to use alternative transportation because your child has a full-time nurse ready to suck excess fluids out of his or her trach at a moment’s notice — is riding the short bus funny anymore when you think of it that way?

Believe it or not, I can have a good laugh, too. But this comic strip reiterated for me that over and over we’re treated as if we’re the ones with the problem, as if it’s my fault I didn’t get the joke.

There are still times that the reality of Mary’s challenges take my breath away, but there are so many more moments where I burst with pride that she is mine. She is the light of my life, my heart. She inspires me, and that is no joke.

Jana and her daughter dressed up as Miss Hannigan and Annie from “Annie.”

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