You wouldn't think that blogging about parenting a child with special needs would incur disgust, wrath and vitriol. Yet over the years, it occasionally has. Mostly, I choose to pity the haters—what kind of pathetic human beings make fun of a kid with disability, or attack a parent trying to raise awareness and respect? Do these people even have mothers? Yes, it seems, some do. And I know because I tracked down one of their moms.
A few years ago, I made a video to explain why the words "retard" and "retarded" are demeaning and hurtful. People regularly leave comments such as "What a retard" and "He's a retard, no matter what you call him," similar to ones left here when I've written on the topic. But one comment—"Your son is retarded. get over it. jesus christ go kill yourself already—stood out, both for its hostility and because the commenter's full name and photo were displayed. Anger flared as I stared at his face. He looked to be in his early twenties. I did stupid stuff in my twenties that I regret, to be sure. But nothing hurtful or cruel, like this.
I write about Max in part to show just how much more a child is than his disability, and to help people better understand kids with special needs and be more welcoming toward them. I expect some to disagree with me when I take a stand, and that I'll encounter ignorance and prejudice. But I had a visceral reaction to this guy. Not that commenters who hide behind the wall of anonymity and spew venom are any better—that makes them cowards, too. It was just that laying my eyes on an actual hater was disturbing. It made the possibility of Max someday encountering someone like him all too real. It made my mama bear instincts kick into high gear.
Usually I just click "Report spam and abuse" and then "Hate speech or graphic violence." This time, I decided to track the guy down. Facebook friends gave me some leads, but in the end it was remarkably easy: The "about" section on his Google+ page listed his college, city and state, along with a place where he'd once worked.
Then again, you can tell their mothers.
I Googled around some more. This guy's parents held civic leadership and community positions and seemed like good people. I wondered if the mom might want to know what her son was up to; if this were my child, I would, no matter his age. His online nastiness could come back to haunt him during a job search. His comment was traceable to their family and could have an impact on them. And maybe, just maybe, his mother would want to let him know how awful he'd been.
Some time later, I wrote her a letter. I hesitated to send it; was I being stalker-like? But the feeling passed; I wasn't the creep. This is the note I mailed:
Dear Ms. ____,
My name is Ellen Seidman. I’m a journalist, but I’m writing to you as a mother about a matter concerning your son, ___.
I write a blog called Love That Max. Max is my son, and he has cerebral palsy and intellectual disability. Several years ago, I started speaking out against the use of the word “retard,” which perpetuates negative stereotypes of kids and adults with intellectual disability. The Special Olympics has a dedicated campaign for this, Spread The Word To End The Word. Many parents like myself—who want nothing more than respect for our children—have spread the word.
I made an awareness-raising video that I put on YouTube called "Would You Call My Child A Retard?" It’s attracted many comments over the years, including one your son left several months ago. Here’s a photo of the comment he left:
You can see it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=16CxvRjx-34
I could have reported this to YouTube as "hate speech or graphic violence” or “harassment or bullying,” which is what I typically do with comments that are offensive. But this comment crossed the line, as it was both cruel and seemingly threatening. Plus, your son chose to comment using his photo and full name.
It was simple enough to Google ___ and find information about him. I had many thoughts about how to proceed—should I contact his school and tell them? Should I contact him directly? But in the end I thought, I'm going to tell his mother. I hope she'd like to know.
If you find this unnerving, please try to imagine how I felt when I saw your son's comment. I usually don't let them bother me; I choose to pity the people who say such things. But this one has stayed on my mind.
I hope you seize this opportunity to speak with your son about respecting people with differences. Words do matter. The way we describe and talk about people with disabilities matters. My son and others like him have enough challenges and roadblocks to overcome in this world. Using respectful language isn't the answer to making people more welcoming to him (if only), but every bit helps.
Like many parents of children with special needs, I will do anything and everything I can to pave the way for my kid, even reaching out to total strangers.
An apology from your son would be appropriate. If nothing else, I ask that your son delete his comment from my YouTube video. I will not do that for him, and it will remain there until he does.
Thank you for your attention.
I was dubious I'd hear back. About a month later, though, I got an email from her.
She wrote that she was "sad and sorry" to receive my note. She said she has two older siblings who are deaf and that growing up, "they were frequently subjected to being teased, ignored, ridiculed and called 'retards.'" She noted, "I have taken great pains to educate my children about the importance of valuing differences and standing up for others." She told me that she'd spoken to her son about my letter and the hurtfulness of his comments. She said her son was a "troubled young man" and while she had worked to address his issues, she rarely saw him.
"Please accept my heartfelt apology for the pain my son's comments have caused you," she said.
There it was, proof that the commenter had issues—exactly what you suspect about haters. And a sobering reminder that mean people can be raised by decent parents. I felt badly for her. Yet I thought she had to know that her adult son's shameful behavior was linkable to her, and he needed to know that there are consequences. I hoped her words had an impact on him. In the end, I didn't regret reaching out to her.
I emailed back, thanking her for her apology. I said I hoped her son would soon be on a better path. "You never know, do you, what course parenthood will take," I wrote.
I waited a while to see if this guy would remove his comment. He didn't.
Months later, I went to YouTube and deleted it myself.