Refusing to Stay Silent

This morning while at the doctor’s office for my yearly checkup, I was enjoying the conversation of my nurse and we got to laughing about different things, and then somehow the conversation took a turn for the worse and somehow led to her saying something along the lines of “People get offended by anything these days.” 

In my mind, I was disappointed that the conversation took that turn because I don’t believe it has anything to do with “these days”. I believe that people are actually getting offended by the same thing that has been offending people for decades, if even centuries. The difference is that now people are not willing to let the offensive words, pictures, or remarks slide. People are not willing to be silenced by the accusation or fear of being accused that they are “too sensitive”. People are not willing to continue to be offended by others simply because they personally do not see the offense.  

But what really had my mind spinning was after she said something about a current topic people are finding offense with. She followed her commentary up with, “It’s so retarded.” 

My first thought was, “No, she didn’t.”

But she did. And as I sat there half-listening as she continued to talk, my mind was racing trying to decide if and how I should address her use of the r-word:

“She just said that people these days are too easily offended, and did I want to be one of those people, did I?”

“Should I even still bother saying something? She’s talking about something else now.” 

“WHY DIDN’T YOU JUST SAY SOMETHING???” 

“I have to say something, but at this point, how?” 

“I don’t want to upset her or make her uncomfortable, but her words upset me and I’m uncomfortable that she used them. Is her comfort more of a priority of my own? Of my son’s and others with developmental and intellectual disabilities? Of their parents?” 

“She’s been so nice. Do I really want to call her out on this?”

When she moved to take my blood pressure and there was a brief pause, I said to her as calmly and respectfully as possible, “You know when you said something about people being offended so easily? Well, then you used the word ‘retarded’ and that actually does offend me because my son has Down syndrome.”

As was illustrated for me today, I know that there are people who continue to use the word retarded despite knowing it’s offensive. Much like the n-word. I would say that perhaps they continue to freely speak it because they haven’t heard that it’s offensive and believe it’s still an appropriate adjective to use in describing something, but I just have a really hard time believing that. (Unless they’re like 100-years-old, then maybe. Otherwise, no.)

I also know that there are a lot of people who recognize and agree that using the word ‘retarded’ is offensive and shouldn’t be used. These are the people who have likely erased it from their vocabulary. I would also venture to guess that a lot of these people cringe when they hear someone else say it and do exactly what I’ve done so many times in the past:

Nothing. Keep your mouth shut. Silently congratulate yourself for not using that word.

I get it. Addressing the use of an offensive slur can be hard and uncomfortable no matter if it’s a loved one or a stranger. There’s a chance that you could find yourself on the receiving end of some more offensive language when you’ve done nothing to deserve it. There’s a chance that you could be ridiculed or even ostracized. There’s a chance you could jeopardize a relationship.

However, not addressing it is giving your silent approval. Yes, in some cases, silence can speak volumes in letting someone know you have been wronged. However, in a situation like this, silence is the equivalent of saying,”Hey, you used the r-word and I find that really offensive, and a lot of other people do, too, but it’s okay if you want to keep saying it.” 

Silence is complicity.

– Albert Einstein

I have to admit that one of the reasons I was able to speak up today is because I’ve been mentally preparing myself since the last time I didn’t speak up. I’ve literally been practicing different ways to respond in my head for a couple of years now because I refuse to stay silent about it ever again.

How can you prepare yourself for speaking up and calling someone in when they have said or done something offensive?

  • Commit to speaking up the very next time it happens.
  • Practice some things you could say: “Don’t you think it’s time to find a new word?”; “You know, that’s a really offensive word to a lot of people and I don’t think you’re wanting to offend anyone, right?”; “Using that word makes you sound really insensitive/uneducated.”
  • Show a picture of Moses or another person with Down syndrome or intellectual disability and ask, “Would you say that to this person’s face? If not, you might want to consider saying it at all.”
  • Have an exit plan. Be ready to say that you’re not comfortable being in a conversation with someone that uses that word and excuse yourself from the conversation.

In the end, you have to just rip the bandaid off and say or do something. A wise person recently reminded me that how the person or people respond to you standing up for an issue is not your concern. You have no control over whether or not she will listen respectfully or fly off the handle. And whatever her response is really isn’t about you, anyway. It’s about her. Her values, her respect of others, her willingness to listen to understand, or a lack thereof. 

I have to give the woman today props for her response today. Did she apologize? No, she didn’t. She also didn’t shut down or get defensive. She was a quiet for a moment while she finished taking my blood pressure, and then our conversation resumed. She even asked me if I knew Moses had Down syndrome before he was born, and I was more than happy to answer her question.

As I left there today, I like to think that she’s going to reflect on our conversation today and reconsider her use of the r-word. She might, and she might not. What I know for certain is that I left there today having advocated for my son and others who are not always able to speak up for themselves. And I have to say, refusing to keep my mouth shut feels really, really right.

Stop Comparing, Start Working

In the past several weeks, I’ve had several conversations with people who are going through a hard time, and each of them has said, “I know this is nothing compared to what others are going through.” Or even, “I shouldn’t even be saying this to you because you have it even harder.”

I think most of us can say that we’ve been there, said that. We’ve tried to silver-line our situation by comparing our situation to one that seems harder. One of the last times I remember saying something along those lines was to my counselor. And she immediately said, “You’re not going to feed me that line, are you?”

Life is full of struggles. No one is exempt. Some are small, some are huge. Some come and go relatively quickly, and some might actually last a lifetime. There is no avoiding hard life experiences from time to time. And when they arise and we want nothing more than to make them disappear, the very last thing that’s going to make that happen is playing the comparison game. You comparing your struggles to mine or me comparing mine to yours at best provides temporary “relief”, but in the end is essentially as effective as trying to put toothpaste back in the tube once you’ve squeezed it all out.

You are not me, and I am not you. You do not have my past experiences, mindset, or perspectives nor do I have yours. What is a struggle to you may not be as much of a struggle to me. What’s a struggle to me might not even register as a hiccup in your day.

No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing He will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

(1 Corinthians 10:13)

We may all struggle in common areas of our life, such as relationships, work, and even faith, yet our struggles are unique to each of us because we are simply unique beings. You and I may be in the exact same difficult situation and perceive it much differently. As individuals, we are bound to perceive and process experiences differently for so many different reasons.

Take, for example, receiving constructive criticism at work. If we both work for the same organization in the same position, let’s say sales, and we are both told that our work performance has subpar and are given suggestions on how to improve, there is a really good chance and you and I will not have the same response. You will be able to listen openly to the feedback and be genuinely grateful for the suggestions. That’s because you have a beautiful growth mindset that helps you view mistakes as opportunities to learn and the confidence to know that, despite this current critique, you are still good at what you do and are going to just keep getting better. I, on the other hand, will be so devastated that I will barely be able listen to the words being spoken about me. That’s because my fixed mindset has taught me that mistakes mean I’m clearly not smart or good enough to do this job. I’m also a perfectionist and my main goals in life are to 1) never fail; and 2) never let anyone down. The constructive criticism has let me know that I am both failing and letting my boss down. I will likely give my two weeks notice tomorrow.

When you’re faced with a challenge, whether it be a poor work performance review, trouble within a relationship, the loss of a loved one, whatever it may be, comparing it to another’s situation isn’t going to help you. Even if you decide that his situation is worse or her challenge is greater than yours, it’s not like yours is going to magically stop being hard. That everything is going to *POOF!* be all better.

Since my counselor put me in my place, I have learned to stop comparing the tests that I experience in life to those of others.

For example, my son has Down syndrome. Yes, he can not only eat food, he also feeds himself. Yes, he can walk and run. Yes, he can do so many things that other kids with Down syndrome or other disabilities can’t. Yes, he brings an insane amount of joy and light to my life. Yes, there are still times when being his mom is hard. Yes, there are still things that he can’t do yet that I wish he could because it would make my life easier.

Comparing all this to someone else whose child has more or seemingly more difficult limitations doesn’t make the hard stuff go away. It also doesn’t help me to mentally or emotionally feel better.

Over time, I’ve learned to say, “This is hard for me right now.” For me – for my brain, for my emotions – this is hard.

There are no comparisons. No feelings of guilt. No excuses for why it gets to be hard for me.

Just acceptance that it’s hard. For me. Period.

I’ve learned to pray about what’s hard. Sometimes I even ask “Why, God? Why me? Why my family?” I ask for guidance and strength and patience and whatever else I need to get me through whatever situation I’m facing at the time. And then I trust that God knows my heart and He knows my mind. He knows my strengths and He knows my weaknesses. And He knows “why”. Which is why I know that He’ll give me who and/or what I need to be in the challenge or get through it.

I’ve learned to ask for help from others.

I’ve learned to say, “No.”

I’ve learned to accept that I am not in control.

I’ve learned to rest – physically, mentally, and emotionally.

I’ve learned to call my counselor when I need an unbiased ear to listen.

I’ve learned that my way is not the best nor the only way.

I’ve learned to keep my heart and my mind open to possibilities that I haven’t even thought of yet.

This is what has worked for me. Maybe some of it will work for you. Maybe it won’t. Because you are not me, and I am not you.

In the end, however, comparing ourselves and our troubles will not work for either of us. Let’s stop comparing and start working to figure out what will actually help us and do that instead.

Morals, Not Politics

“But we have retards…I’m sorry, I know that’s an offensive word, and I’m not trying to talk down on people with Down syndrome, but that’s what these people are. These people are so stupid and ignorant they cannot put something common sense in place…”

Marjorie Taylor Greene, United States House of Representatives (GA)

This comment was made in a video by this person a few months ago. I first learned of it a few days ago. After I watched and listened to it a couple of times, I decided I wasn’t going to say anything because I don’t like getting into politics. I don’t even know this woman and she doesn’t represent me or my state so why bother, right?

But the more I’ve thought about it, I know I have to say something.

For me, it has nothing to do about politics and it has everything to do with morals. It has nothing to do with being a Republican or a Democrat and it has everything to do with the standard of what is and is not acceptable in our present-day society.

First of all, I don’t care who you are and I don’t care what you are talking about. If you know a word is offensive and you choose to say it anyway, saying ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t remove the insult from the word you said. For example, if I said to you, “No offense, but you’re really ugly.” Does the first part cancel out the second? No, it doesn’t. The words ‘retard’ and ‘retarded’ used in relation to describing a person or group of people have been recognized as extremely offensive for well over 10 years. I’m pretty sure that’s an ample amount of time for anyone born before 2009 to remove it from their vocabulary when referring to a person or group of people. Let me be clear: Saying “no offense” before or after the word ‘retard’ or ‘retards’ does not make it inoffensive. Ever. Pointing to a group of people who are still fighting to have their worth as human beings recognized to illustrate who you think of when you say the word ‘retards’ only serves to compound the offense.

Secondly, did you notice that she went on to identify a group of people that comes to her mind when referring to ‘retards’? Who she compared those who are “so stupid and ignorant they cannot put something common sense in place…”? Yep, people with Down syndrome. Someone like my son. Someone like my Goddaughter. People like our friends that have Down syndrome.

Moses Moyers, a 4-year-old with Down syndrome as well as common sense.

Here’s where I’m going to bring in politics. I am so tired of hearing people say things like, “Well, he said that because he’s a Republican/Democrat.” A political party doesn’t speak, people speak. A political party has ideals and views, but people choose what words come out of their mouths. This person didn’t say what she said because she represents a certain political party. She said it because she is a human being who thinks it’s okay to demean one group of people by referring to another group of people to serve as an example of her offensive slur.

What bothers me the most, though, is that there are going to be some people who know me and claim to care about my son yet will stay quiet about this elected official using the word ‘retards’ as well as calling out people with Down syndrome to give illustration to the word. They will stay quiet because they identify with the same political party that she is a part of or because they agree with the issue she was trying to make a point about. I honestly don’t care if they are a member of her party or if they agree with her stance on the issue she was talking about. I don’t care. What I care about is excusing and/or agreeing with her use of words and her belief about people with Down syndrome.

During the past few months, I have witnessed an alarming number of people who excuse or even support immoral and unethical behavior in the name of a political party. It frightens me that people would allow a political party affiliation to come before God’s commandment to love thy neighbor as thyself. On both sides of the political spectrum I have seen and heard so much hate and disrespect which is somehow deemed acceptable in the name of party loyalty. It’s as though somehow political parties have come to set the moral standards for their members instead of vice versa. I personally choose to stay out of political discussions because of their negative nature, even among people who identify with the same party. However, when that hate and disrespect extends to people who didn’t ask to be involved in the narrative, I am going to speak up.

I’m not asking for anyone to jump party lines to denounce the words of this person. What I am asking is that you understand that on a moral level what she said was so incredibly wrong and offensive to so many people. Some of which I’m going to guess she’s claiming to care about or represent. But without words and actions to back that up, then her claim is only that. You can be a member of a political party and not support some of the people and practices associated with it. (Trust me, I know this from experience.)

Last night I prayed for the person who said these words. I also prayed that others would not see her as an example to follow. I prayed for the words to address this issue in a way that was respectful yet firm in repeating myself and countless others in saying that using the words ‘retard’ and/or ‘retarded’ to describe a person is offensive and inexcusable. I pray that you and your sense of morals will not support that.

Three Hundred Eighteen Days

Almost a year ago, three hundred eighteen days to be exact, I shared about reaching my breaking point. Physically, mentally, and emotionally I was exhausted. I was burned out from investing too much time and energy into people and things outside of myself and not consistently investing enough quality time and energy in myself.

I didn’t get to that place overnight, and I knew that getting back to a place of health – physically, mentally, and emotionally – would take time. Sure, I could have gone to my doctor and asked for an increase in my antidepressant medication, and I’m sure that would’ve “helped”. However, deep down I knew that what I was experiencing wasn’t depression (although it was definitely part of it), and putting the band-aid of more medication wasn’t going to get down to the root of the issues I was experiencing.

There was no magic formula I followed to improve my overall health. I didn’t follow a particular program or introduce anything radically new into my life (other than planning to take a leave of absence from work which got the Covid-wrench thrown into it). Instead I found that what I needed was already in my life…I just needed to utilize my time, energy, and resources differently.

First off, I prayed. A lot. I’m not just talking saying a few extra Our Fathers. There were a lot of big conversations between God and me happening. Some of them were a lot of me asking “Why?” about a multitude of different things; others were of the begging nature in which I pleaded with him to just make it all go away and show me the fast, easy road back to “normal”; then there were the ones in which I surrendered to Him and just asked Him to hold me because I couldn’t hold myself up any longer. 

The weekend before I was supposed to begin my leave of absence, I was invited by a couple of friends to join them in a 40-day yoga and personal growth challenge. Through that, I did find that doing yoga daily helped me improve my physical health. I don’t know if you’ve ever done yoga, but some of those poses are hard. And then you have to hold them for forever. Even though I wanted to give up pretty much every day in the beginning, I stuck with it and found myself getting stronger and not hating all the hard poses so much. I also found that my mental health was improving from both the nature of yoga and being focused as well as being pretty proud of my progress.

Sleep became a priority. I found a sleep app that tracked not only how long I slept but also how much light and restful sleep I got. I have learned that: a) I feel best when I get 7 hours of restful sleep; b) too much alcohol before I went to bed decreases my restful sleep; c) exercise typically increases my amount of restful sleep; d) not enough sleep usually mean I’m not going to be as peppy and patient throughout the next day; e) the less sleep I get directly affects my eating habits the next day (and not in a healthy way). Overall, I learned that sleep is essential to my overall health.

I started watching The Office. As a school counselor, I have learned about the science behind how laughter affects the brain and can improve your mood and mental health, which is why I knew that if I was going to watch something, it had to be my kind of funny. Michael, Dwight, Jim, Pam, Stanley, and the rest of the crew at Dunder Mifflin are my kind of funny!

With the help of my husband and my counselor, I began to reconcile with things from my past that were still affecting me even though I thought I had put those people and things behind me. I learned the true meaning of forgiving and letting go of the pain of the past. I learned how to finally forgive myself for the hardships and the mental and emotional pain I had inflicted upon myself and endured from others.

I rediscovered the importance of not comparing myself to others. Although I am nowhere near the perfectionist I once was, I still fell into the trap of comparing myself to other women in various ways – physically, spiritually, intellectually, professionally, etc. I stopped following people and groups on social media that served to be a source of unhealthy comparison rather than positive inspiration.

I experienced the beautiful power of relationships. Throughout my life, I have had the opportunity to meet and know some truly amazing people, and firmly believe in the idea that people have come into my life for “a reason, a season, or a lifetime”. I have been especially thankful for the people in my life who have supported me and cheered me on during this turbulent season of life. These people have helped me to remember who I am and who I wanted to get back to being. For their love, support, and encouragement, I am forever grateful.

Finally, and most importantly, I was patient with myself. As fantastic as it would’ve been if I had woken up after the end of the first week or even the first month, thrown off the covers, and announced, “I’m baaaack! All better!”, that didn’t happen. Sometimes it seemed like I was moving backwards and sometimes I felt like I wasn’t moving at all towards feeling better. Then there were the “A-HA!” moments and days that I could feel myself moving forward that helped me to know I was on the right track. There were the glimpses of the “me” that I had been missing that motivated me to keep working.

Three hundred eighteen days and counting. (Because I’m working every day to maintain my progress…I haven’t put in all this work to go back to where I was!)

Why have I worked so hard to gain control over my overall health for the last three-hundred eighteen days?

Simple. (Kind of.)

I did it for me.

Because I deserve it. I deserve to feel good physically, mentally, and emotionally. Because God didn’t create me to lead a life of sadness, hopelessness, frustration, and gloom. Taking care of myself – mind, body, and soul – has helped me to love who I am again. It’s helped me to be a much better wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, and advocate. Taking care of myself benefits everyone in my life. 

I know that I’m not alone in feeling lost, alone, unhappy, burned out, etc. My hope for anyone reading this thinking, “Where do I start?” Start where you’re at. Make today your Day 1. Your journey will most likely look very different from mine, but you’ll never know what yours looks like until you start. Once you start, take it day-by-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute. You’re worth every second.     

Words Matter

suffer (verb – used with object): to undergo, be subjected to, or endure (pain, distress, injury, loss, or anything unpleasant)

Dictionary.com

This afternoon I was somewhat paying attention to the Philadelphia Eagles v Green Bay Packers game that was playing on the TV while I was in the kitchen. When the sportscasters began talking about the different cleats players were wearing to raise money and awareness for different causes, I paid a little closer attention. When the reporter for the game focused on the cleats worn by Alex Singleton of the Eagles, I thought it was pretty cool that they were for the Special Olympics. The reporter went on to explain why he chose to support that organization:

Because his older sister “suffers from Down syndrome.”

The advocate alarms instantly went off in my brain.

I immediately went to work looking up who was announcing that game, and I learned the reporter’s name.

Next, I Googled the reporter’s name and found the links for her social media accounts.

I’ll be honest in that as I was doing my research, my first impulse was to blast her on her social media accounts and mine. I was even going to sign up on Twitter for the occasion.

However, by the time Google had given me the information I was looking for, I had calmed down (a little) and had decided that I wouldn’t blast her on her social media accounts. Instead, I would just send her a message on Facebook and hope that she saw it and took it to heart.

Hi Ms. Wolfson,

I was watching the Green Bay v Philadelphia game, and I heard you commenting on Alex Singleton wearing Special Olympic cleats today in honor of his sister, Ashley. You said that she “suffers from Down syndrome”. As a parent of a child with Down syndrome, I am going to encourage you to refrain from using that phrase ever again. My guess is that Ashley, like my son Moses, does not suffer at all from having an extra chromosome. She is a person with Down syndrome, living with Down syndrome, and from the sounds of it, thriving with Down syndrome. There is no suffering about it. My guess is that you meant no harm or offense by your choice of words, but please take into consideration that your choice of words impacts how others may view Down syndrome. Seeing as how 67% of parents choose to abort a baby upon learning it has Down syndrome, we have to work intentionally to highlight the beauty and value people with Down syndrome bring to our society. 💙💛

Respectfully yours,

Jenny Moyers

I also sent her a picture of Moses and me from a recent trip to the zoo in which we were both smiling and clearly not suffering.

Riding the train at the St. Louis Zoo

There is no pain, distress, injury, loss, or anything unpleasant being endured here simply because Moses has an extra chromosome.

The only time I would say any of us have come close to suffering as a result of Moses having Down syndrome was when we feared we were going to lose him as a baby to RSV.

I don’t expect to get a reply from Ms. Wolfson. I don’t expect her to publicly acknowledge her error in speaking about a person with Down syndrome.

What I do hope is that she never says it again.

I hope she understands how much words matter.

In some cases, they can literally mean the difference between life and death.

For Those In Education

I have a favor to ask.

It’s no secret that our healthcare workers are overwhelmed and exhausted – physically, mentally, and emotionally. They need our support and prayers now more than ever.

I want to ask that you remember to also support and pray for those in education right now.

There are so many people in education that are also being tested day in and day out during this time.

Teachers

Administrators

Administrative assistants

Counselors

Social workers

Custodians

Cafeteria staff

Athletic directors

Therapists

Literacy aides

Paraprofessionals

Classroom aides

Coaches

There are so many people who are on the front lines in education that are working tirelessly to continue to provide not just an education but also a safe place for students and staff to go to every day. These men and women are being asked to put the welfare of others before their own.

It’s not easy, but they’re doing it.

Just like those in healthcare, these people need support and prayers now more than ever, too. And just like those in healthcare, they’re also often the least likely to ask for help.

It doesn’t have to be much. Just something to let them know that you know they’re in the trenches, that you’re thinking of them and supporting them.

Send an encouraging message. Or a funny one. A smile can literally change the way your brain feels, and laughter is good for the soul.

Drop off a snack or meal that they don’t have to prepare. Or booze.

Send a card. Homemade ones are best.

If anything else, pray for them. Pray for them to have the health and strength to continue showing up and serving the students they love.

Friends and Buddies…Bro Dogs

I finally watched The Peanut Butter Falcon yesterday.  

If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a movie that features a young man with Down syndrome pursuing his dream of going to a wrestling school run by his favorite wrestler. And by pursuing, I mean running away from the retirement home he was confined to. 

Since it came out last summer, I had heard good things about the movie and how it promotes inclusion of people with Down syndrome. 

(In the educational world, inclusion is one of the current buzzwords. I really like this definition of inclusive mindset: “A non-judgmental belief that all individual experiences are valuable and are met with empathy, compassion and emotional intelligence.”) (https://images.app.goo.gl/5ypPJ96WrXCLWqcT8)

The thing that I absolutely loved about the movie was how Zak, the person with Down syndrome, was treated by Tyler, his travel companion. 

It was not what I expected. 

I figured it would be one of those stories in which the typically-developing person went through a personal transformation and changed his perception of people with Down syndrome by the end of the movie.

To my surprise, Tyler had an inclusive mindset. 

He treated Zak like a normal person from the get-go. 

Yes, he saw that Zak had Down syndrome. He also saw that he was alone. He literally had nothing other than his underwear and a goal. 

Tyler could empathize with that. He didn’t have anyone or much of anything, either.

He showed Zak compassion rather than pity or disdain. 

He showed emotional intelligence in that he developed a relationship with Zak for the person he is. He acknowledged Zak’s Down syndrome but it wasn’t what he focused on. 

One of my favorite lines in the movie was early on when Tyler told him,

“I ain’t doing no charity shit, it’s just on my way.”

(The Peanut Butter Falcon)

People with Down syndrome are not charity cases. They are not tickets to viral internet videos and 5-minutes of fame. They are not a means to help yourself feel good by befriending them. They are not accessories to invite to parties to boost your reputation as being “inclusive”. 

The relationship that developed between Zak and Tyler is what I pray for Moses to have in his life. 

That he has friends who want to hang out with him and include him because he’s an awesome, fun kid. Not because he has Down syndrome and they’re supposed to be nice to kids with disabilities. 

That he has friends who talk to him like a person. That they don’t dumb things down and insult his intelligence. That they don’t take advantage of the times when he doesn’t understand fully what they’re saying and mock him. 

I pray that he has relationships with people who love and care about him for who he is wholly. Not only because he has Down syndrome. 

I know it was a movie, but the relationship that Zak and Tyler had is what I want for Moses in real life. 

I pray that he finds his own  “…friends and buddies…bro dogs…” (The Peanut Butter Falcon)

The Peanut Butter Falcon. Directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. 2019. Film.

Early Education in Down Syndrome

This week I got to Zoom with my 4th grade students during their Counseling time. It was so great to get to see their faces and hear their voices! We weren’t Zooming just so they could sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me, though. We were Zooming so we could talk about Down syndrome.

October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month and it’s also the month my school district celebrates Disabilities Awareness Week. It’s one of my favorite weeks/months of the school year because I love getting to teach my kids that having a disability does not mean there is something wrong with a person. It means that there is something different with the way a person’s body or mind, or sometimes both, work. We learn about different types of disabilities while always keeping our focus on the fact that a person with a disability is a person that deserves to be treated with kindness and respect.

For each class I gave them a basic explanation of the chromosomes and the extra copy people with Down syndrome have, some of the differences that causes for their brain and body, and how much they are able to learn to do when given the chance. Then I asked if anyone had questions about Down syndrome.

The students in the class I Zoomed with on Tuesday morning were either still half asleep, bored to tears, and/or experts on Down syndrome already so none of them had questions.

By Tuesday afternoon, I was questioning whether or not it was worth doing the next two days. If the information I was sharing with them was appropriate and meaningful or just falling on deaf ears. If spending the time talking with them would even make a difference.

As I Zoomed with another class on Wednesday morning, I could tell the students were a little more engaged as I went over the same basic information. When I invited them to ask questions, hands quickly went up into the air.

“Is it similar to autism?”

“Can you catch Down syndrome from someone who has it?”

“Is it rare?”

“Can it be cured?”

It was awesome! I answered their questions the best I could and loved the effort they were giving in trying to understand Down syndrome.

Today’s session was good, too. One student asked if kids with Down syndrome behaved worse than other kids, and another asked if kids with Down syndrome could breathe okay.

It was yesterday’s session, though, that helped me to know that doing this wasn’t a waste of time.

Down syndrome isn’t rare. It’s the most common chromosomal condition that occurs in babies. About 1 in every 700 babies are born with Down syndrome. That number would be higher but unfortunately approximately 67% of women choose to terminate their pregnancy following a prenatal diagnosis.

There is no cure for Down syndrome. And as I told my students, I wouldn’t want there to be one. Because if Moses didn’t have that extra chromosome, he wouldn’t be Moses. Same goes for a lot of other awesome people with Down syndrome.

My hope is that one or more (or all) of those amazing young kids will grow up and make a difference in the life of someone with Down syndrome.

Maybe one of them will be a doctor who tells expectant mothers, “Your baby has Down syndrome. I know this news is unexpected and not necessarily what you wanted to hear, but I want you to know that there is no reason to believe that your child won’t lead a very fulfilling life.”

A nurse that says, “Congratulations! You baby is beautiful and perfect.”

A teacher who says, “Let’s see what works best for you so that you can learn as much as you can while you’re in my class.”

A policy maker that understands people with Down syndrome deserve fair access to things like life insurance and organ transplants.

An employer that welcomes people with Down syndrome to work at their business in a capacity that is appropriate for them. That provides the training and opportunity for them to be successful and contribute to the success of the business.

A friend who accepts a person with Down syndrome for who he or she is. Who isn’t nice because you’re supposed to be nice to people with disabilities but because she truly enjoys being around him.

A partner or spouse who resists the urge to bail upon hearing the diagnosis. Who chooses to stay and love and support the mother and child through all the ups and downs.

A mother who refuses to abort the life growing inside her. Who chooses to love her baby unconditionally regardless of the number of chromosomes it has. Who chooses to focus on all that her child will be able to do when the world wants to tell her all about what it won’t be able to do. 

In the world of Down syndrome, we are taught that early intervention is key for the successful development of our children.

I believe that early education is also essential for progress to continue to be made when it comes to the Down syndrome community. Talk to your kids. Teach them about Down syndrome and other disabilities so that when they find themselves around someone who has an extra chromosome, who might sound a little “funny” when he talks, who needs a little extra time to understand what she’s hearing, or whose brain or body works a little differently in other ways, they know what to do.

Be kind. 

Show respect. 

Choose love.

Stepping Up Awareness

When I let people know that it’s time for the Step Up for Down Syndrome Walk either in St. Louis or Cape Girardeau, I always get such an overwhelmingly positive response from family members and friends wanting to show their support for Moses and the Down syndrome community. 

When it’s getting close to World Down Syndrome Day (March 21) and I ask people to wear a blue and/or yellow shirt (the colors for Down syndrome) and/or crazy socks (because chromosomes have a shape similar to socks), I again get a fantastic response of people showing their love for Moses and others with Down syndrome. 

Last October, in honor of Down Syndrome Awareness Month, I posted pictures and information about Down syndrome almost daily, including its history, quotes, challenges people and families with Down syndrome face, etc. Some of the things were pretty common knowledge, such as Down syndrome is caused by the presence of three number 21 chromosomes in each cell. Some of the information was a little lesser known, like that from 1946 until 1979 many children with Down syndrome were institutionalized because according to Dr. Benjamin Spock they existed at a level that was “hardly human”. Once again, the supportive and appreciative feedback was amazing. 

Since Moses was born, I have learned so much about Down syndrome not just by watching and observing him as he’s grown and developed, but also from talking to other people that have family members or friends with Down syndrome. From reading and learning about its history which paints a sometimes horrifying picture of how individuals with Down syndrome were treated. Early on in our country’s existence, people with Down syndrome (including children) were treated very inhumanely. The institutions many of them were sent to denied people with Down syndrome everything from healthcare to plumbing. They were forcibly sterilized. Feeding a baby with Down syndrome was considered a lifesaving procedure so many doctors refused to allow that type of “treatment”. These types of things were still happening in recent history. For example, in 1981, when a baby was born in Bloomington, Indiana with a blocked esophagus (the tube that connects the throat and stomach), the doctors advised the parents to decline the life-saving surgery the baby needed to survive. Because the baby had Down syndrome. Unfortunately, the parents took the doctors’ advice and the baby starved to death (Global Down Syndrome Foundation). I was born in 1980. That means that these discriminatory, and at times lethal, practices were happening within my lifetime.

Sickening, right?

Which is why having those different events and opportunities to increase awareness and support for individuals with Down syndrome is so important. Otherwise, the history of they have endured may be forgotten, or worse, repeated. The progress that has been made and the work that continues to be done may lose ground. None of these options is acceptable which is why I will continue to work hard to advocate for my son and the Down syndrome community.

Even though it’s not time to Step Up for Down Syndrome or for any other awareness event, a thought struck me today that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. I realized that when I put information out about any Down syndrome awareness events or anything about Down syndrome in general, there is one thing has never happened. 

Not one person has ever asked, “Why aren’t you walking for ALL disabilities?” or “Aren’t ALL people with disabilities important?” or “Shouldn’t you be raising awareness for ALL disabilities?” 

Each of those would be fair questions because the history of how people with Down syndrome have been treated is a history that is shared by all people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The killing, institutionalization, sterilization, discrimination, etc. were practices extended to all types of disabilities. 

So do I think that all types of disabilities deserve efforts to raise awareness?

Absolutely. 

But my son has Down syndrome. And Down syndrome is different in many ways than other types of disabilities. To group all disabilities together always would hinder the goal of increasing knowledge and awareness about not just Down syndrome, but other disabilities such as congenital heart defects, autism, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, and the list goes on and on. When I’m advocating for Moses and the Down syndrome community, I’m not saying that those other types of disabilities are less important. That the people with those disabilities are less important. I’m just working to raise awareness about issues and challenges individuals with Down syndrome face, some of which are unique to Down syndrome. Just as there is unique information about each different type of disability. Which, interestingly enough, seems to just be understood. It has never required an explanation from me or anyone else that I know of. 

I understand there are some people that don’t understand or are opposed to the Black Lives Matter movement. I’m not proud to admit that six years ago when Michael Brown was killed and I first heard that phrase, I didn’t understand or support it. 

However, having a child that belongs to a group that has been subjected to unfair practices and still has to fight for certain rights and opportunities helps me to understand. Having a child that isn’t able to advocate for himself but still has needs and rights that deserve to be met helps me to understand. Having Moses has helped me to develop empathy for another group that has been subjected to unfair practices and still has to fight for certain rights and opportunities.

Yes, all lives matter. But all lives are not being subjected to individual-level and systemic-level racism and discrimination in various forms every single day, and have been for hundreds of years, all because of skin color. (Which, in my humble opinion, is extremely immature. It’s like Josie saying she doesn’t like pesto because it’s green.)

Saying “Black Lives Matter” doesn’t diminish the importance or value of any other lives any more than Stepping Up for Down Syndrome doesn’t mean that other disabilities aren’t worthy of an awareness event. Some may say I’m comparing apples and oranges, but I honestly don’t see it that way. Here’s how I see it: There is a group of people in our country that need and deserve our love and support right now to show that all lives really do matter by understanding and saying “Black Lives Matter”.  I hope you’ll join me in stepping up to do just that.

Communication: More Than Just Talking

“Mom, when is Moses going to start talking?”

That’s the question Josie asks me every so often.

My usual answer is, “When he’s ready.”

That answer does little to satisfy her. And I get it. She knows he’s 3-years-old. She knows that Moses’ best friend next door is three and has been talking up a storm for a while now. She sees videos of herself talking when she was younger than three. She also sees that physically, Moses is doing what most other three-year-olds are doing as far was walking, playing, eating, etc. So I get it that it’s hard for her to understand why Moses can do some of things that other kids his age are able to do but not others. Like talk.

To be fair to him, he does talk. I compare it to the babbling that babies do as a precursor to talking. And to be honest, it’s pretty freaking cute. Sometimes it’s just one or two sounds in response to something. Other times it’s a long-winded lecture about something that is not to his liking. My favorite is when he gets really excited and does this high-pitched cheer with a huge smile on his face.

He does know some actual words: Ma, Da, ball, Alexa, yes (with an emphasis on the ‘s’), and no.

But there are many more that he knows but isn’t able to pronounce accurately. For example, “de” is “thank you” and “come” is “welcome”. For the most part, when he says certain things I know what he’s saying. I know that when he says “ble” he wants a cutie, “Bo” is “Elmo”, “Ca” is “Cookie”, and “Gar” is “Oscar”. He also knows the signs for “more”, “please”, “thank you”, “milk”, and a few more.

His go-to form of communication is to either say “c’mere” or grab my hand and walk me to what he wants. If it’s something in a cabinet or the refrigerator, he’ll point to and guide me with “yes” and “no”.

Besides, he communicates in so many other ways.

Is it always easy? No. There are times when, despite both of our best efforts, I cannot figure out what he wants or is trying to tell me. There are times that I know he knows exactly what I’m telling him to do or not to do, like pick up the apple he threw down, and he openly defies me. There are times that I need him to understand what I’m telling him to do or not do, like go outside by himself, and I know he just doesn’t understand yet. There are tears and shouts of frustration for both of us at times.

But overall, I don’t consider his delay in speech to be a major issue.

Besides, he communicates in so many other ways that are even better than words.

Like the way his face lights up when he sees me walk in the door. The way he gets up, does his little preparatory dance, yells “Ma!”, and then runs to hug me. The way he giggles when I chase him around the kitchen. The way he watches and mimics Josie, especially when she’s dancing. The way his lower lip sticks out and he tucks his chin down when he gets hurt or sad. The way he pats my back as I hold him and hug him tight. The way he cuts his eyes to the side before he makes a break for it when I’m trying to get him dressed.

One of the most common questions I see posted from mothers who have just found out their baby will have or does have Down syndrome is, “What can I expect?” And I know from experience that what they’re really asking is, “What hardships or challenges can I expect?” It’s no secret that a person with Down syndrome will have physical and cognitive delays to some degree. However, what I feel like it is virtually impossible to help those new or expecting parents to realize is that those delays will actually serve to highlight strengths not only within their child but within themselves.

Josie started talking when she was a year old and hasn’t looked back. Knowing what she was thinking, needed, or wanted has never been hard to figure out. To be honest, I feel like we were quite spoiled in regards to the ease in which we were able to communicate with her early on.

However, with Moses, I feel like we have actually been given the gift of realizing that communication goes much deeper than words. With him, his communication might be more underdeveloped for his chronological age, but in that I find that it still has more of the simplicity, authenticity, and genuineness of that of a younger child. With him I don’t have to wonder if he truly means what he’s communicating because he is still so genuine in what he feels, needs, and wants. Sure, I may have to pay more attention to his nonverbal cues, but is that really such a bad thing? Especially if it means that I am more in tune with my child and it also helps me to be more in tune with others that I communicate with?

The next time you’re talking with someone, take the time to pay attention to how her eyes light up when she’s talking about something she’s passionate about. Or how his body language changes as he searches for the right words to explain what he’s thinking and feeling. Think about whether or not her facial expression and tone match up with the words she’s saying. Pay attention to these things within yourself, too. Are you fully communicating your honest thoughts and feelings?

Moses has taught me that when it comes down to it, while spoken words are important and meaningful, the true beauty of communication goes far beyond words. The beauty is found in the genuine and raw thought and emotion that children are so artful at showing. Adults are capable of showing the same thing but learn to mask it for a variety of reasons. Moses communicates in his way without malice, without ridicule, without hidden meaning or agenda. I never knew that my child with a speech delay would be teaching me lessons on communicating. But then again, I shouldn’t be that surprised. He is pretty extraordinary.