"That noise he makes outside is DREADFUL!!!!!!!!!! It scares the hell out of my normal children!!!!!!! When you feel your idiot kid needs air, take him to the park you dope!!!"
"He is a hindrance to everyone and will always be that way!!!!!! No employer will hire him, no normal girl is going to marry/love him and you are not going to live forever!!"
"Do everyone in our community huge a favor and MOVE!!!! VAMOSE!!! SCRAM!!!!! Nobody wants you living here and they don't have the guts to tell you!!!!! Do the right thing and move or euthanize him!!!"
Like many, I've felt pained for Max and his parents, Karla and Jim Begley; the father spoke of being scared for his son's safety in a TV interview, the mom cried. Their community in Ontario, Canada has rallied around them and local police continue to investigate.
No matter what happens, this woman will never be able to escape from herself. She has to live with that hate, that poison, inside. How it must suck to be her. How sad for her children.
Once I got past the seething stage, I got a grip. We can sit around fuming and despairing over the special needs haters of the world, or we can do whatever's in our power to help people better understand and respect those with special needs.
Parents of kids with special needs do this all the time. While extreme intolerance like this is rare, we regularly contend with misunderstanding about special needs, ignorance and discomfort. When kids or adults aren't sure how to act around our children, we bridge the gap: "Hi! He'd love it if you said hello," or, simply, "This is Max." Once there's an interaction, it's easier to help people see how in many ways our kids are just like others—and to explain their disabilities, if the conversation goes there.
Some of us try to make a difference by raising awareness about language people use. When words like "retard" get flung around, even jokingly and even when not used as an insult, they fuel disdain for people with intellectual disability. It's a nasty word—exactly the one the hater used when she wrote to Karla Begley, "You had a retarded kid...deal with it...."
"That's so retarded!" a relative remarked recently, when he was visiting our house. "I can't stand that word—it's offensive," I said. "It perpetuates the idea that people with intellectual disability are losers or stupid. Please don't use it." He instantly got it, and we moved on. Obviously, speaking out against a word is not the answer to changing perceptions of our kids (as if), but it is one more way to raise the respect bar.
For sure, it isn't easy to deal when our kids' behavior irks people. The other week, Max had a sensory meltdown in a restaurant and let out a piercing screech. We were seated next to a table of women—it looked like girls' night out—and they all stared. I knew they were thinking he was being a brat. When Dave took Max for a walk, I leaned over, apologized and said he had special needs and sensory issues. One woman asked what about the restaurant had prompted that reaction, and we got into a discussion about how a new setting, the din in the room and even dim lighting could unnerve Max. "I never knew about that," she said. Sometimes, all you can do is focus on calming your child (and yourself) down; sometimes, you can help people understand where it's coming from.
I don't have a Gandhi thing going on; the patience and goodwill aren't always there. At times, I get ticked off by the stares and it takes a lot of self-restraint not to snap "What's your problem?!" But over the years, I've learned that I'll ultimately do more good for Max if I can get past my defensiveness and help people better understand his needs—and the wonderful kid he is. One person at a time, I'm making a difference. One person at a time, you're making a difference. All of us together, we're making a difference.
If you don't have a kid with special needs, I beg you, teach your own children well. Encourage them to say "hi" at the playground to kids with disabilities, as they would with other kids. Answer their questions—explain why a child with autism may flap his arms or make sounds or why a kid with cerebral palsy may walk the way he does—but also talk about the ways kids with disabilities are like them. Every one of us has the power to educate, enlighten and eye-open.
Karla and Jim Begley, we are thinking of you, and doing our part to help. I hope they figure out who wrote that letter, for your peace of mind, but I also hope you take comfort in the ways you and your Max have surely changed people's perceptions of kids with special needs. You are surrounded by a fellow army of parents marching on, right past the isolated haters, determined to make the world a more welcoming, respect-filled place for kids with special needs.