Handicapped remarks ‘intolerable’

Story by Ellen Orr

To most, it’s no big deal. It’s just a funny joke. “You’re a retard.” “You ride the short bus!” “What class is he in, Special Ed?”

To me, it’s a little more serious.

No school year has gone by without a teacher making an insensitive joke in class. Sometimes they apologize when I tense up or leave the room. Most of the time, they don’t. It’s inappropriate and immoral, and even though most haven’t been graced with a handicapped family member or best friend like I have with my little sister, Emily, it’s still unacceptable.

Last summer, when I realized Emily was going to be a freshman at Texas High this fall, I couldn’t stop rambling about my fears. Images of her running over kids’ feet with her wheelchair and getting yelled at worried me, and the thought of her sitting at home during the less wheelchair-friendly school activities (like the football games and the dances) made me cry. Nobody but a sister would think this deeply into things, but I was worried that she wouldn’t get to sit with her friends at lunch, seeing as her wheelchair won’t roll up to most of the tables in the cafeteria. However, I somehow managed to find comfort in the knowledge that I’d be there with her.

Of course, when the first day of school approached us, Em did fine; she’s got more friends than anyone else I know, she refuses to go to the home games with me because they’re boring (unless my boyfriend and her biggest fan, John, can convince her to come watch him in the marching band at halftime), and she’s going to homecoming with my friends and me. I don’t know why I ever doubted her…she’s always been amazing, in the true sense of the word: she amazes me every day.

Most people tell me to chill out about the handicapped jokes. Most people tell me to pick my battles, let it slide, not worry about being so “politically correct.” They wouldn’t be able to say that to me if they were there when my sister tearfully asked me for the first time if she was “a retard;” or when the checker at Albertson’s looked at me and said of Em, “She is so cute!” as if she was a Chihuahua or a digit-sucking toddler, and not a stunning freshman in high school; or when I had to watch my sister sing in the choir concert on the floor next to the stage, because there wasn’t a wheelchair ramp that would allow her to feel included and important, like the rest of her class.

No, people just don’t understand.

The most common misconception is that it’s okay to be patronizing. Acting like my sister is anything less than a smart, beautiful, eloquent 15 year-old is intolerable. Don’t baby her; no, she doesn’t need any help with her cell phone, thanks. Don’t wave to her in the hallway and act like you’re her friend if you’re not willing and eager to go see the newest Julia Roberts movie with her this Saturday, or if you wouldn’t respond to her text messages. Don’t be anything but genuine.

People use “retard” as an insult all the time, and nobody even flinches, but there are slurs that I can’t even print that would make your skin crawl. If I wrote certain insults here, there would be school-wide outrage.

And now it’s a big deal.