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What to Keep in Mind When You See Sarah Palin's Meme of Her Son Who Has Down Syndrome

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Ellen Stumbo, The Mighty’s Parenting Editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

Update: On Friday, Instagram removed the meme from Sarah Palin’s account. Palin has since expressed her disapproval of Instagram’s choice.

On Monday, following the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as Supreme Court Justice,  Sarah Palin — whose 10-year-old son, Trig, has Down syndrome — posted a meme on Instagram that she created. Since then, Palin’s meme has sparked controversy in the Down syndrome and wider disability community.

Screenshot of Sarah Palin's meme. It does not include images of Trig to respect his privacy.
We have cropped out the images of Trig in this screenshot to protect his privacy.

Palin’s meme was meant to show how she views protestors. She wrote, “What protestors (who can’t explain what they’re protesting) think we see -vs- what we really see ???? (????sorry Trig!❤)”

The top of the split image reads, “What protestors think we see,” with images of four “warrior” women, wearing revealing attire. The bottom is captioned, “What we really see,” with three images of her son, Trig, who is crying and who appears to be “throwing a tantrum.”

Many people are calling out Palin for using a picture of her son — and by extent, people with disabilities — as a way to make fun of people who do not agree with her political views. “Exploiting the pain of someone with special needs in order to own liberals is shameful, particularly for someone that has a child with special needs, I thought you would be enlightened about this sort of thing,” a commenter wrote.

“Please care for and protect your family rather than humiliating them on social media in an attempt to humiliate others you don’t agree with,” another said.

As the mother of a child with Down syndrome, I put politics aside when I saw this post. I get what Palin was trying to do — she was calling protestors “crybabies.” This has nothing to do with her son’s diagnosis, it could have been any of her kids, really, throwing a tantrum at Walmart for not getting a toy. I don’t think the fact that Trig has Down syndrome even crossed her mind when she created this meme. She probably just wanted to show she views protestors as children throwing a fit.

I get her intentions. Except, Trig does have Down syndrome.

It may appear she is saying protestors look like children with Down syndrome — and crying for not getting their way. It can come across that she’s using people with Down syndrome as a derogatory comparison. That becomes the problem.

While I do not think that was her intended message, Palin does hold a responsibility to uphold the dignity and respect of people with disabilities, especially her son. While Trig may be just Trig to her, to the world watching, he is a boy with Down syndrome. People know him primarily due to his diagnosis and from how openly Palin has talked about it. Had she stopped to consider her meme more closely, she may have realized it was likely some people would interpret it in relation to his diagnosis.

Pictures of children or people in a vulnerable state can be embarrassing for those in the images. Those pictures can carry a connotation of shame. While some people or kids, may not care if someone shares a picture of them in a vulnerable state, most of us would not want our weak moments displayed for all to see. I believe children are to be given the same dignity and respect that we would to any other family member. Just because they are children, does not mean their dignity can be thrown out the window. I doubt Palin asked her son for consent to share those pictures (many parents do not, and I have been guilty of not asking). Trig is 10, and regardless of his diagnosis, he should have a say on whether he is OK with those pictures being shared. If he cannot grant consent, then it is best to keep those private, rather than making fun of him for acting like a kid.

Because ultimately, that is what the meme is meant to do: make fun of people. And the punchline is Trig, a little boy with Down syndrome.

We get angry when comedians do it. We are supposed to be safe, not the bullies. We cannot be the ones who do it, too.

Maybe this can be a learning moment for all of us parents — whether our kids have disabilities or not. Our kids should never be a punchline to a joke. We shouldn’t make fun of their vulnerable moments. And for those of us who parent kids with disabilities, may we never forget that we carry a responsibility not only for our kids but as allies to the wider disability community.

Originally published: October 12, 2018
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