"Joke" Reminds Us That Our Work Is Not Done
NOTE: In sending this message, I do not intend to make a political statement about our President, his personality, his policies, or his administration. I do intend to spread a general message encouraging respect and appreciation towards.
As has always been the case, the purpose of On the Same Team is to inform parents and educators about disability-related and in an unbiased and nonpartisan manner. I hope that you receive this message in the spirit in which I intend it.
I am the very proud mother of a Special Olympic athlete. Anyone who knows me as a friend, family member or even acquaintance is aware of my daughter's recent participation in the Illinois Regional Special Olympic Swim Meet. The day was one of the most memorable of my life. For days on end, I gushed about it to anyone who would listen.
I will never forget the emotions of the day. The pride I felt was unlike anything I had ever experienced. As my daughter prepared to compete in her first event, I was overwhelmed with bittersweet thoughts and memories of her first ten years of life.
I remembered the day we saw her have her first of what would be many epileptic seizures.
I recalled the terror I initially felt in letting my daughter with even enter a body of water, fearing she would have a seizure and drown.
I thought of the doctor who claimed that "based on the data," she would never be able to swim.
I thought of the countless hours my daughter spent in a pool, working to master freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly in spite of her learning disabilities.
I also recalled her subsequently having to re-learn each of those strokes, because a seizure episode "erased" the strokes from her memory.
I thought of the private Swim Club that - upon learning of her epilepsy - protested her participation and made me sign specially-drafted liability waivers in order to let her participate.
I thought of her little legs shaking on the starting block before her very first race.
I thought of her mouth filling with water as she swam, because of the bright, wide smile that spread across her face.
I thought of the neighborhood Swim Team teammate who told her she swam too slow.
And I thought of her friend who valiantly defended her!
I thought about how she has worked harder to learn simple things, than most people have to work to master the most complex things. I marveled at her strength, determination, and grit.
I felt honored to KNOW her, let alone be her mother.
Just participating in the events is a tremendous accomplishment. All of the athletes are winners. I spent the day awestruck at my good fortune to be a spectator at this very special event.
On that particular day, my daughter earned two gold medals. I wept, overwhelmed by the joy, pride and emotions involved.
That afternoon, I sent hundreds of emails to friends, neighbors, family members, colleagues and acquaintences, recounting the joy, excitement and pride of the day. I immediately posted a photo album on my page. I wore my Special Olympics t-shirt for several consecutive days! I have never bragged so much in my life, as I did in the days that followed that meet. I jokingly told my friends to refer to me from then on as "Mrs. Phelps."
That day was a day of validation for my daughter and her fellow athletes. In a world where people with disabilities often have to struggle daily, the Special Olympics provided the athletes with an opportunity to share their abilities proudly! And the athletes shined brighter than any gold medal.
My daughter and I are not alone. We are merely two among the countless people who believe that people who know just how hard people with disabilities - Special Olympics atheletes or not - work each and every day. And we are merely two among the countless people who believe that ALL people are worthy of respect and dignity.
The message I convey today is one of love and respect. Here it is:
We must discourage the use of comments, jokes and "insults" that mock or disparage people with disabilities. We must encourage others to value and respect individuals with special needs.
We all know that some individuals with disabilities are very effective advocates for themselves and their rights.
We also know that many individuals with disabilities - by virtue of those very disabilities - are unable to speak up for themselves.
When this is the case, I believe that it becomes OUR responsibility to do it for them. We - the parents, siblings, relatives, neighbors, and educators of people with disabilities - are the voice for the voiceless. Safeguarding their honor is our responsibility. More importantly, it is our PRIVILEGE.
Please - help me reach out to everyone who may think that it is "okay" to make fun of people with disabilities. While I certainly do not share Jay Leno's access to millions of viewers, I do have faith in humanity. I am a hopeful person. I believe that - through you - we can certainly make a positive impact upon the public perception and treatment of people with disabilities.
I sent out this request about a year ago, and I am repeating the request now.
First, please email everyone in your address book, asking them to refrain from using the "R" word and other disparaging comments and "jokes" about people with disabilities.
Second, if you overhear someone making a comment that criticizes people with disabilities, please educate them on the offensiveness of such language. It takes a few moments - and some guts - but you can make a positive impact upon the world. At the end of the day, you will know that you have been the voice for the voiceless.
Thank you very much for reading this message.
And thank you in advance for spreading this message.
Peace to you and those you love.
On the Same Team
Maureen Lowry-Fritz, J.D., M.A.