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My Child With Down Syndrome Is Not Your Joke

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On a recent Wednesday night finishing up an errand, my husband, Matt, and I grabbed a bite to eat at a restaurant before heading home. There was a family seated at a table near us. I’d guess the father at our neighboring table was in his mid-30s and his kids were their early teens. I overheard this particular father teasing his daughter in an amiable way. Then he said to her, “You are special ed!” He was teasing his daughter that she was acting silly.

Ugh! Ugh! Ugh!

What a very specific negative message to send, especially to your child! Oh how I wished my son, Wil, was there with us at that very moment. I would have asked Wil to walk over to this neighboring table with me. Always happy to make new friends, Wil probably would have agreed. Hand-in-hand we would approach this family, “I’m so very sorry to interrupt your dinner. It’s just that I overheard you say your daughter was in special ed! That is so wonderful! This is my son, Wil. He’s in special ed, too! This is fantastic. It’s always a great pleasure to meet other families in the special education program. I love how circumstances like these bring people together!”

But Wil chose to stay home with his older sisters rather than run errands with us that evening, so he was not with us at dinner. I sat there thinking of how to approach this situation. There really was no good way. I was eavesdropping. And the message I wanted to send would have been lost by me interrupting this family’s dinner. It hurt to hear the message this father sent. In our current times, with inclusion in schools, awareness has taken great forward strides. Clearly, there are many more forward strides to take.

Shortly after I overheard the aforementioned comment, I got up and walked to the restroom. On my way there, I came upon a large table. There were probably 12 people seated around the table. As I passed by a young woman, perhaps in her 20s, she waved energetically to me and gave me a big smile. The woman next to her smiled and said, “She’s waving at everyone today!” The entire table was jovial. I could see this young woman had disabilities. I could also see she was the highlight of this merry group.

I’m not one to believe in coincidences. And I don’t believe the simultaneous occurrence of the father making a “special ed” joke and the young woman’s uplifting smile and wave fall into the coincidence category. I may not know the young woman personally, but I can imagine what her world is like. Her entire table seemed to be lifted by her energetic waving and smiling. There is something immensely profound about living with people with disabilities. As a parent, I know this world from the inside, and for that I’m extremely thankful. Sadly, the family next to our table does not. I do hope they drank plenty of water or soda making them take a trip to the restroom. If they did, chances are they received an energetic wave from the young woman at the big, happy table, too.

Originally published: April 26, 2019
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