Calling People ‘Special’ Can Be Dehumanizing

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A few months ago, I wrote about why it’s a mistake to label the parents of children with disabilities as “special”. Ultimately, what makes me (or anyone) a qualified parent is that I love my son enough to take care of him. I don’t have to be some superior kind of person to parent a child with Down syndrome. If something special were required, I’m certain that God will have given my son to someone else.

But I think that there is another important reason for people to reject the view that “God gives special kids to special parents.”

It’s not just a mistaken understanding of what I am like. It is also a mistaken understanding of what my son is like. Saying that Down syndrome makes my son “special” may reflect something quite dangerous. It might reveal a tragic view of people who have disabilities.

Remember, the idea is that it takes a special kind of person to be the parent of child with a disability. The perspective creates a distinction between this kind of person and that kind of person.

Do you see the problem?

When we call someone “special” we disassociate from them. “I’m normal, and you’re special.”

“I’m not special,” you might say, “so I can’t handle a special child.” If you think you can’t handle parenting a child that is not typical, are you perhaps admitting that you’d rather not try? Maybe, it reveals that you see people with disabilities as undesirable members of the family. Full disclosure, I had to admit that about myself once.

Truth be told, the “special people” lie subtly dehumanizes those with disabilities. It’s not something that anyone intends to do, but when you start putting people into categories you inevitably start to rank them. And that is the real problem. People with disabilities are very often seen as less valuable than those who aren’t disabled. And that spills over into how we talk. That’s why people sometimes talk about my son as if he is more like my cute pet than my child. Or why kids (or maybe even adults) sometimes talk to their peers like they are toddlers because they are using a wheel chair.

How we talk is a reflection of how we think. If we have the wrong perspective, we will probably have the wrong words.

So please join me in trying to be more careful with our words. Let’s examine what may be hiding behind our good intentions. If our goal is to be encouraging and loving, then let’s be thoughtful in how we seek to express that encouragement.

And let’s be willing to do the hard work of searching our own hearts to see if we are looking down on others because they are different.

Kind words will mean a lot more if they come from a truly kind heart.

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Children With Special Needs Don’t Make Parents Special

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Although my wife is pretty special.

“God gives ‘special kids’ to special parents.” You’ve probably heard the statement. You may have even said it yourself. It’s one that is pretty common. I don’t know if I’ve ever actually verbalized it myself, but I did assume it was true once upon a time. However, I now see that it is simply not the case.

I understand that people mean well when they say it. I’ve done my best to be gracious and thankful to those who have said it to me since my son’s birth. I understand it is intended to be a compliment of sorts. People are just trying to be encouraging. But I don’t think that it’s particularly helpful for anyone.

My wife and I will be the first to admit that we are not part of some exceptional brand of humanity. We get stressed out about caring for our little guy sometimes. We get tired. We become impatient. I can assure you, we are just like any other parents.

Sure, they’re called “special needs” because they are not the same things that every child will face. Our son currently sees 4 different therapists each week. He is 16 months old and just last week sat up unassisted for the first time (and we celebrated that accomplishment big time). That milestone came after many months of working with a therapist. He is still learning to feed himself. He does not crawl quite yet. I would be lying if I said that all of this is not overwhelming at times.

And I suppose that some people watching us see how much we love our son, and how much we seek the best care for him. They may take notice of how much time and effort we invest into seeing him succeed. Their observations may lead them to view us as truly special indeed. The problem is that if you removed from the equation that our son has Down syndrome and were looking at the parents of a typical baby, you would absolutely expect to see people who love their child, seek that child’s best care, and who put time and effort into seeing that child succeed. And if parents of that typical child did not exhibit those characteristics, they would be viewed as bad, selfish parents.

So then, what makes us so special?

We’re just doing what all parents naturally do. When you meet your child, you fall in love. And it’s that unconditional kind of love. When you fall in love with your child, you do what you must to take care of them. Some things are easier than others, but you endure because of the one for whom you are doing those things. It doesn’t make you special. It makes you a parent. It’s a job that anyone can do regardless of what life with our little ones may look like. Kids with special needs are just like kids without them. Little humans who will be naturally loved by their parents. And when those parents fall in love, they step up to do the things that the little one will need for them to do.

Anyone can be a parent to a child with special needs. They only need to have love in their hearts.

This cliché is dangerous because it leads not so special people to think that they are inadequate to care for their “special” little ones. Believe me, you can do it.

If you just found out that your baby will have special needs, don’t assume you can’t take care of them. Don’t be scared. Don’t think for a minute that you won’t like being their parent. I can assure you that you will love that child more than you ever imagined possible. No one is better equipped to nurture that baby than you, because no one will love that baby as much as you will.*

God doesn’t give special children to special parents. He gives children (regardless of their needs) to imperfect, ill-equipped people who slowly learn how to apply their love to the raising of their children.

So please don’t call me special, because I don’t call you that either. Neither of us are.

We are parents. A special job, to be sure. But a job for ordinary people nonetheless.

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*Sometimes, that unconditional love that a parent has for their child may lead them to selflessly recognize that they are not the person who is able to care for him or her. In those cases, adoption is a wonderfully miraculous thing. There are also those tragic situations in which a biological parent fails to love their child selflessly and they are forced to give them away (or they abandon them altogether). In both cases, such children come into the care of other parents who unconditionally love them  as their own. Praise God for adoption. And praise God for those people who bring children into their families as their sons and daughters. Christians view it as a beautiful picture of what God has done for His children through Christ (Ephesians 1:3-6).

We Should Love the People We Tend to Hate

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Who doesn’t love Super Bowl commercials? Everybody enjoys a good twist, and those ads pretty much only exist to surprise us. This year, we were introduced to a prenatal baby with an appetite for Doritos. It doesn’t get any more surprising than that. For me though, the real surprise came afterward. I heard the next day that NARAL had criticized the ad because, among other things, it used what they deemed an “antichoice tactic of humanizing a fetus.”

I am opposed to abortion on the grounds that it ends a human life. At the same time, I do understand that there are those on the other side of the aisle who truly believe that my position is a problem for a host of reasons. And while I believe that they are dead wrong, I also believe that if we do not truly listen to one other, we will never be able to bring one another over to our way of thinking. So I try my hardest to listen to the other side with sincerity and deal with what they say charitably.

Even so, I could not help but scratch my head at this one. The complaint wasn’t about Doritos calling abortion murder. How could it have been? The ad wasn’t about abortion at all. It was about an unborn baby who apparently had x-ray vision and an appetite for processed foods. NARAL’s problem? The human fetus was humanized.

I recently heard more complaints about humanizing. This time it was directed at Jimmy Fallon’s treatment of Donald Trump. As the two men interacted during an interview on The Tonight Show, Jimmy was given permission to mess up Trump’s famous comb over. It was a light-hearted exchange that many found to be humorous.

But some people criticized Fallon. Some thought he was too easy on Trump. Some thought he should have scrutinized the candidate. Some on the Left went so far as to accuse Fallon of humanizing the Donald.

A human being was humanized, and people were mad about it.

At this point, it may be tempting for some to accuse the Left of intentionally dehumanizing others when it suits their agenda. I have to admit, my mind went in that direction for a little while. And to an extent, I think that there is some of that going on (intentional or not). But as I have thought about it more, I’ve had to admit that this is a tactic that is used by the Right as well.

We don’t need to worry about the refugees, they are probably terrorists.

We don’t need mourn with the families of dead inner-city youth, they are thugs.

We don’t need to respect President Obama, he’s a liberal.

Conservatives and liberals may have some commonalities after all. Like the Left, the Right dehumanizes people all of the time (intentionally or not). It’s an easy thing to do. Just throw some derogatory title on someone and they have been demoted from human to less than human.

That tendency should be of grave concern for us all. But it should especially be troubling for those of us who follow Jesus. After all, he famously commanded that we love our enemies. It’s a very difficult mandate. Perhaps more difficult than we even realize.

There’s a familiar story in the Bible known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. While many have heard it, fewer know why it was told in the first place. The story is shared by Jesus in response to a question. After establishing that the second greatest commandment in the Torah (there are 613 of them!) is to love your neighbor as yourself, Jesus is asked who exactly qualifies as a “neighbor”. The implication of the question is that there are some worthy of neighbor status, and some who are not. So Jesus tells the tale of a man who saves the life of a cultural adversary (the Samaritans and the Jewish people had major problems with each other), pointing out that he acted as a neighbor to that man. Then Jesus tells his questioner to go and do likewise.

So then, loving one’s enemy means treating them as a neighbor. And the love that we are to show neighbors ought to mirror the love we desire for ourselves.

Not everyone on the Right is a Christian. Not everyone on the Left is a Christian. But to those believers on both sides (and in the middle), please be sure to view other people as neighbors. And be sure to love those neighbors as yourself.

The only way to do so is to recognize the humanity of everyone. The humanity created in the image of God. The humanity for whom Jesus bled and died. The humanity from whom you are called to make disciples.

If you call yourself pro-life, recognizing humanity is certainly a prerequisite. But if you call yourself a Christian, truly loving that human as you ought may be very difficult indeed.

The Good Samaritan’s life was certainly made difficult by the love that he showed. But it is exactly that difficult love to which Jesus calls his followers.

Will we be obedient?

“Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” -Luke 10:36-37

The Danger of Assumptions and the Importance of Awareness

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Photo credit goes to AK Photography

When Jude was given a probable diagnosis of Down syndrome about half-way through Nicole’s pregnancy (we didn’t confirm it until he was born), she and I began doing research. We didn’t know much about it, so learning quickly became a top priority for us. Much to our relief, there is no shortage of educational information when it comes to Down syndrome. What surprised me was the number of websites dedicated to not only educating people on what it is, but also on raising awareness of it. As one who was mostly uneducated and unaware, I (rather ironically) wondered why there was such a concern for “raising awareness”. Aren’t people already aware that Down syndrome is a thing?

What I did not realize is that being aware that Down syndrome is a thing is quite different from understanding it. And even if someone understands the genetic ins and outs of Trisomy 21, they may not understand what it means to have Down syndrome, or how important individuals with it are to the world. I realized the difference following a conversation several months later.

After Jude’s birth, I was walking my dog when I ran into some neighbors. I shared with them that he had arrived and they expressed their excitement for us. As we talked, I revealed that he has Down syndrome. I was surprised by what was expressed next.

“Oh no. He’s Down’s? I’m sorry.”

The statement came with a tone of sincere sympathy. He was truly sorry.

But sorry for what? At the time, I took it to mean that he was sorry we had this kind of baby. He was sorry that we didn’t get a better one. He had just congratulated me, but now it was as if congratulations were no longer in order. We were pitied.

It was one of those moments that I feel like I’ve seen on TV shows. You know, when a character says or does something out of line and is about to learn a valuable lesson? You know the moments I mean. The moments that you kind of roll your eyes at because they never happen in real life.

But it turns out that people really do say such things on occasion. And because it wasn’t what I expected to hear, I was totally unprepared to respond.

I don’t really remember exactly what I said in response. I think it was something like, “Oh, no, we are thankful for him.” And we were. And we certainly still are. And in fairness to my neighbor, I don’t think he had any hurtful intent. I certainly don’t think he intended for me to take it the way that I did. But as I have thought over that conversation since that day, I have had several different feelings. At first, I felt shocked. Then I was angry. More recently, the anger has disappeared and been replaced with empathy. I have come to see that for the better part of my life, I might have felt a little of what my neighbor seemed to express that day.

When the possibility of a Down syndrome diagnosis first came up, I had a brief period of denial. Why? Because I apparently assumed it was something that is undesirable. It was the same assumption that my neighbor apparently had. And whether or not I would have actually said something like that to a new parent, I now realize how ignorance about Down syndrome can lead people to think all kinds of unfortunate things. And I was certainly not immune.

That is why I think it is so important that we raise awareness.

Awareness that people are not “Down’s people”, but first and foremost people who happen to have Down syndrome.

Awareness that the unique challenges that Down syndrome may present are not the only side of the coin.

Awareness that Down syndrome is not a disease or some kind of devastating affliction.

Awareness of the accomplishments of people with Down syndrome (driver’s licenses, degrees, jobs, marriages, etc.).

Awareness that people with Down syndrome bear the image of God along with the rest of humanity and are masterfully crafted by a good and wise Creator.

And on a personal level, awareness that, on most days, I don’t spend most of my time thinking about the fact that my son has Down syndrome. Not because I am still in denial, but because, as many have already pointed out, he and I are more alike than we are different.

Can I ask you a favor? Would you please take a few minutes to explore one or two of the links above and share what you learn with others? You may find out that some of your assumptions about Down syndrome are misguided or even totally wrong.

I know I found that to be the nature of many of my own assumptions. My son is a gift, and there is nothing about him I would desire to change. When I first found out that he might have Down syndrome, that was not the case.

I thank God that I am more aware now.