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To the Person Who Called Me the R-Word at Work

I was roughly 11 when I was diagnosed with OCD and an anxiety disorder. It wasn’t until I was about 17 that I was diagnosed with ADHD/learning disability. At that time I had also been diagnosed with and was being treated for clinical depression. There is a lot of stigma that often goes along with mental health and disabilities. I have heard countless jokes about mental health, but I recently had the most negative encounter I’ve had regarding these issues.

I’ve heard jokes and comments for years and I usually shrug them off, but I’d be lying if I said they didn’t bother me at all. Over time it has become important to me that I speak up in these instances — not out of anger or to argue on my behalf, but to bring awareness and hopefully sensitivity to the topic of mental health and disabilities.

After struggling through school and working with kids with disabilities for years, I decided to earn my BA degree in elementary education and K-12 special education. I wanted to be a teacher who could provide a quality education to students of all ages and abilities, and be accepting of children no matter what their needs were. However, as someone who went through mental health treatment/counseling and dealt with learning disabilities, I often felt like a walking contradiction. How was I supposed to be teaching students with disabilities when I was dealing with similar issues? Was I qualified enough for this job? Was I smart enough? If I struggled so much with school myself, how was I supposed to be teaching others?

I struggled with these questions throughout my college education, and still do today as I am entering my second year of teaching. However, I am able to find my confidence as a teacher — not by being the smartest or by knowing every answer to every test question, but because I understand on a deeper level where my students in special education are coming from. I understand how frustrating it is to be a student who wants to focus but cannot, and whose teacher gave up on them because of this daily battle. I know what it’s like to work for hours on an assignment that my peers were able to complete in less than half the time. I know how it feels to watch good grades and recognition come to other students while I was struggling to keep my head above water. No matter what a student is dealing with, I know they never deserve to have a teacher give up on them.

As a special education teacher with learning disabilities myself, I am able to teach with a level of compassion and understanding for my students that I would not have otherwise. I am nowhere near perfect, and I will always continue to grow and learn as a teacher, but I am thankful for the unique perspective my disabilities give me in this career. Today I work as the lead adolescent special education teacher at a mental health hospital. Middle and high school students who come to the hospital for residential treatment are my students. I teach children in grades 6-12 who come from all backgrounds and have a wide range of gifts and abilities. I teach English, math, science, and social studies for both general and special education students. I deeply care about each and every one of these kids, and I am honored to be a part of their education, especially as they are seeking treatment.

This brings me to yesterday, which as I mentioned before, was one of the most negative encounters I have had. I was in my classroom when two of my educational co-workers decided it would be fun to give me a pop quiz. I don’t test well, I’ll be honest. When you put me on the spot, I get panic attacks and my mind draws a blank. I’m sure someone else can relate to this. I am also recovering from a concussion which has caused me to be much slower at recalling information. The more questions they asked, and the more I got wrong (or simply couldn’t answer) the worse it got.

At first my co-workers were laughing and teasing and I laughed along. I have learned a long time ago to have a sense of humor about my learning disabilities, and many times, it’s not worth making a big fuss over. However, as the questions continued to roll on, it became harder and harder to laugh along. My co-workers continued to make jokes about my general knowledge. They said they were amazed I was actually a teacher. The asked if I had sustained a head injury. They said I should be tested for autism. They said that I must be “mentally retarded.” They said they hoped someone was hired that was qualified for this job.

The jokes went on for far too long. To be honest, I was shocked at the things they said and how casually they were thrown out. I was caught off guard and wasn’t sure what to say. As I left work for the day and went home, I was much more hurt than I let on. How could I possibly respond to those comments?

If I could speak to the people who have made such comments to me, I would ask them to please not make light of such a serious matter. Mental health and disabilities are issues that are all around us, even though we sometimes cannot see them. Many people would never make a joke about wheelchairs to a person who uses a wheelchair because they know it’s disrespectful, hurtful, and unkind. Yet they’ll make similarly insensitive remarks to people with disabilities that are not visible to the naked eye. I’ve lost count of how many times someone has made a disability joke to me, only to apologize profusely when I say I have that or a similar disability. The principal of the matter is not that the person should feel sorry once they find out the joke applies to me, but that it is not something they should have said in the first place.

We live in an era where acceptance of all people is applauded. Activists are raising awareness for a myriad of issues around the globe. We are taking big steps forward, but we are still far from perfect. With regard to mental health and disabilities, so many are still grounded in the past and rooted to the negative stigma. Every person deserves to be treated with kindness, no matter what; just because we can’t see what a person is dealing with, that doesn’t mean we have a free pass to comment on it.

Please, let’s think about our words before we speak them. Calling someone the r-word is never OK. Chances are, if it’s something we would regret saying to one specific person, it should not be said at all. Our words have such a profound impact on those we speak to. Let’s try our best to make our impact a positive one.

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Thinkstock photo by Wavebreak Media.

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