Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Hating on kids with special needs: What can make it stop?

After 50 Cent made slurs about kids with autism on Twitter, he raised a whole lot of hackles in the special needs community. The other day, he apologized. I was glad to see it but still, the incident lingers on in my mind. What's it going to take to ease the prejudice against kids with special needs?

The brouhaha began when 50 Cent tweeted at a fan, "Yeah, just saw your picture fool you look autistic." He followed up with "I don't want no special ed kids on my time line follow some body else."And then, attempting to make light of the situation, he added "Just kidding about da special ed kids man, i was in special ed day said i had anger issues lol."

Last week activist actress Holly Robinson Peete, mom to a teen boy with autism, RJ, wrote an open letter to the rapper that she posted on the HollyRod Foundation site. As she said,

"When I read (the tweet) my heart sank. I thought maybe your account had been hacked. No such luck. You went on to joke about not wanting 'special ed kids' on your timeline. Seriously, THIS is how you use your platform of 8 million plus followers??" She proceeded to lay out the stats—1 in 88 kids have autism, 1 in 54 boys do. And then she said she hoped he saw just how "hurtful, immature and misinformed" his comments were. "He has to deal with so much trying to fit in," she wrote about RJ. "This isn't helping."

Over the weekend, 50 cent tweeted "I realize my autism comments were insensitive, however it is not my intention to offend anyone and for this I apologize." He took down the offensive comments from Twitter.

This follows a familiar pattern: a celeb says something insensitive about disabilities in the media, outrage ensues, said celeb apologizes (well, usually).

Really, though, this isn't about celebs, or using your power for good (and 50 Cent does; a campaign behind his Street King energy drink has so far provided 3.5 million meals to hungry kids).

This isn't just about the hurtful words people sling around about those with disabilities, though parents will continue to speak out when others insult our kids.

The issue here—the one that haunts me and many other parents, I know—is how we can help open people's minds toward children and adults with disabilities. I've thought about this a lot in recent years, as I've seen slurs like "retard" hurled around along with general nastiness slung toward kids like Max. I think about it every time I read about an incident like this, or whenever I see an adult staring blatantly at Max.

Part of me hopes that because of the awareness being raised now—by bloggers, by activists like Holly, by groups like Autism Speaks—kids will grow up with more open-minded attitudes toward those with disabilities. Still, it starts with parents: parents helping their "typical" children understand that children with special needs aren't so different from they are. It starts with parents helping kids see that every child has unique abilities and challenges, too. It starts with parents helping kids see the ability in the disability.

More inclusion would also help—not just at schools but in sports, rec programs and camps. In our state, there is one day camp that has an inclusionary program for kids with special needs. This is far too important for it to be so rare.

I'd like to see more inclusion in media, too. The majority of shows for kids, sitcom or cartoon, don't feature children or adults with special needs (excluding Sesame Street). The people who cast actors and models for TV programs, movies,  magazines and ads are concerned about having cultural diversity; why not physical and cognitive diversity, too?

I ache for Max to live in world that accepts him for who he is. And so, I'll keep doing my part to spread awareness. I'd love to hear your thoughts on what might help people be more accepting of kids with special needs—and stop hating on them.


  1. Hi, I'm a long time reader, but this is my first comment. I work with adults with disabilities as a general support worker and advocate in Toronto. I don't want my first comment to be critical...but I would encourage you not to list "Autism Speaks" on a list of charities that are raising awareness. The general consensus among people who actually have autism seems to be that Autism Speaks does not speak for them and does not represent them. It does not include Autistic people in leadership. There are other organizations that more authentically represent the concerns of Autistic people and I would encourage you to check them out rather than boosting an organization that seeks to eradicate autism. Can you imagine an organization that seeks to eradicate Down syndrome, how offensive that would be to people?

    Here is a link to one of my favorite explanations, by an autistic person, about Autism Speaks: http://autistichoya.blogspot.ca/2012/07/georgetown-say-no-to-autism-speaks.html


  2. Both my son, Parker (13) and daughter, Allison (9) have Fragile X Syndrome (FXS) (leading cause of inherited mental impairment/leading known genetic cause of autism) - while I have been speaking on FXS for awhile to adults, when Parker was in 2nd grade I realized I needed to talk to his peers.
    The first time I did it, it was the hardest thing I ever did. To stand in front of his 2nd grade class and talk about Parker, how they are alike, different and what they can do to help him. It has become my favorite talk of every year and by far, the most important.
    His class just finished 7th grade. Each year I have expanded on the background and knowledge of FXS but I have also talked about disabilities in general. We talk about how everyone is different. And I am very clear of things that are not ok to do or say.
    I am so proud of his classmates and the young people they are becoming. While I like most of their parents & I want many of these life lessons to come from them - I can't sit back and trust it will happen. Instead, I empower the children. I give them the understanding, the reasoning, I make it personal, putting them in Parker's shoes. I teach them how to understand Parker, how to help him, to include him and all of his friends in the special needs community. The difference it has made is amazing.
    I have talked to Allison's class from 1st grade on. She is significantly less affected, so we talk together, about her brother, about special needs in general. I wouldn't miss this opportunity for anything.

    I lecture at conferences on how to do this. Giving other parents the tools, the outline, the empowerment to go out and talk to the classes. While it's the hardest thing to do - it's the most rewarding.

    I don't think, at least for me, that I can just wait and trust for other parents to teach compassion to their children. So I do it. And I am so glad that I do.

    I also have been involved with the social challenge. (www.thesocialchallenge.org) a campaign similar to the amazing "Spread the Word to End the Word" campaign aimed at ending the use of the "r" word.

    I think, it takes speaking up. Being a clear, positive, voice for our children. Like Holly Robinson Peete did, like you - and many of my friends are doing - with blogs.

    We are the voices of our children. Together, I am positive, we will change the world.

  3. I have not read the blog post so am not commenting on it but in general I feel that Americans are very sheltered in terms of all special needs, disabilities and disfigurement - We live in a place that for the most part is peaceful - there is access to basic necessities that keep us from small pox and leprosy, war wounds, goiters, the results of poor nutrition, the ravages of starvation and disease and untreated sickness - We like pretty - pretty people in neat little packages - the surface is what's important (and I mean surface in a very general way - the looks, yes - but also the assumption that if you look okay - you must be okay - and if you are a little off well then we can TRY to see beyond it but anything passed the "little" mark and you are free game)

    This is not new news - unfortunately - how many shows have sent reporters undercover as fat people, homeless people, poor people, people who talk to themselves, people having seizures - The results are always the same - most people walk by, some will call 911 if there is danger and 1 or 2 will stop to help - It is sad but true - People hate what is different or misunderstood

    Whenever "celebrities" - and i use that term loosely - give social commentary or make bad choices publicly - I tell my friends and family - that so-and-so is not a role model - They may be a good basketball player or actor or performer or author and that is their talent or job but they are not who we turn to for role models for our children or to set good examples for humanity - That is our job as parents

  4. It does have to start at an early age in school - there are very, very few inclusive programs in that really allow children to mix together. It does not help that for many special needs kids, the non-inclusive classes offer them more assistance, so they don't get to mix with the NT community. I know for my son, I'm aiming to put him in the Autism preschool class & not inclusive b/c I want him to have more therapy.
    Adults definitely need moreeducation too & the media could help so much more with this, because as you said, Sesame Street is about it for special needs people being prominent.
    My son is only 2 & I have seen already the lack of understanding in children & adults. With so many special needs people in our world, how can it be that way still? I'm just as guilty of being ignorant - until my son was diagnosed with PDD-NOS, I knew so little about Autism it's embarrassing. And now I'm finding a whole world out there of people who share so many things in common with him & with me. I only hope that things change quickly for the children, the adults & their families.

  5. Our son is an entertainer AND person on the autism spectrum. As his parents, I completely agree with 'Anonymous' that pushing away people who are different is almost instinctive...we saw it in kindergarten and realized that inclusion was right, but would never completely happen in our lifetime. Our son is twenty six now, entertaining and contributing wholeheartedly to the enjoyment of life in our community, Vancouver BC and the lower mainland. He is a voice impressionist and our purpose is to 'shake up the perceptions many have about people with developmental disabilities and have a great time doing it'. Here is his website: www.bensimcoe.ca
    It is a long road ahead, but it is the good fight and I encourage all who are moving in the direction of creating a widestream rather than acceptance in a so called 'mainstream'. Bottom line, as Dr. Brene Brown stated, 'Our imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we are all in this together.'

  6. I just wanted to send a few words of encouragement. I really appreciate your blog. I don't have a kid with special needs, but I do have 2 kids. And an aunt who has CP. I have a real issue with authors who use the R word. They make such a conscious choice about every word on the page...the books go through editors, even. How does that word make it to a published book? When I see it I just stop reading because I can't focus on anything other than the fact that the author is making money using hate speech. Jen Lancaster (Bright Lights, Big Ass) is one and so is Rhoda Janzen (Mennonite in a Little Black Dress). Borders even let me return a book because of it.

  7. This is awful, what 50 Cent said. You asked for what I think would be a good way to teach kids about disabilities. Well, I personally go into schools and teach them when they're very very young. I was always in an integrated school, and I think that's really important for kids to see that we are like everyone else. In my presentations I try to really relate to the kids, like "I like icecream like you," "I might do things in a different way as you, my muscles don't work."
    I know you try to do that with Max.

  8. I've sent you an email before that says what this comment will say, albeit from a different standpoint. I think your blog, and I think blogs of parents, as well as blogs of individuals with disabilities, are an amazing way to connect to the "neurotypical" world. I fell into the blog world through a former coworker's blog about her son, who has CHARGE syndrome. It was the first experience I've had with someone who has a disability, and it's weird how I've jumped from blog to blog, and story to story, learning about all these different types of people who have all these different lives. Some of the blogs I follow are parents whose children have disabilities, some are blogs by people who follow religions I've never even considered; the list of how I am different from the blogs I read is fairly endless.

    I think you (and those in similar shoes as you) do an amazing job of sharing your lives in an inclusive, approachable way. You (and those in similar shoes as you) are creating a two way street for dialogue, and that is so valuable. I love reading your blog, and I love that you continue to share the very honest ups and downs of your particular life. I think a lot of hate, fear, and disrepspect that gets aimed at the community of people with disabilities comes from a place of deep, deep ignorance. The "different" can be very scary, and blogging makes it so easy to learn more about how no one is that different from the person standing next to them.

    I get that it's still up to readers, to people, to take the time and read these blogs, or click through to the stories, and that change can only happen in small doses but I think blogging is a great advancement for any group of people isolated or alienated.

    (Well that ended up way longer than I originally thought it would!)

  9. Maggie, same issue with books I was so mad that the high school required reading book was all about negativly showcasing kids with special needs and used the rword many,many times.My friends and i took our concerns to the english dept. whose response was,"It's on the bestseller's lisit."The principal is the next stop but we will wait a week as a girl in the grade above us just died and the school is full of grief consulers. PBS kids really has something going with inclusion in TV shows first Sesame street then Aurther so what if its a cartoon.there was 2 or 3 episodes with a little boy with asbergers in it and another episode with a girl in a wheelchair.those episodes From us kids segements had kids with autism and severe cerebal palsy in them. But i do agree more inclusion is necassery in the media. Holly, I admire your efforts of speaking up in your kids classes.I have a hearing loss and every year i give a little speech about it and my FM system.Now going into HS i find its not nessarey much now as i basiclly know everybody and most people know about my hearing loss.The education falls more on teaching 7 different teachers each year or more with electives. jenny s-a, you are right there are few inclusive programs that allow kids really to mix and even fewer that let kids with severe disablites partipate.This past school year my middle school went more inclusive.There was a boy in my gym class with asbergers.I was the only one who talked to him. There was no encouragement ounce so ever which is nessary for 8th graders.I partnered with him the whole year.Most of the boys teased him. My friendliness led to another girl pronucing on multiple ocassions the B.(the boy) wanted to go out with me.He did not i had asked him. Our nation has a long way to go in the genral social treatment of people especially children with special needs.

  10. Hi Ellen -

    Thanks for writing on this. I actually have a problem with the fact that it took another celebrity to make him apologize. And the slant of Holly's response was, predictably, towards the Autistic community.

    As the mother of several kids with differing special needs, and a 12 year old son with significant issues (CP, seizure disorder, global developmental delays, blah blah blah, my problem is that the apology was directed towards that specific disability. It almost feels like autism is the current shining star of disabilities. Now, don't hate on me for this. I have friends with autistic children (HA! What does that sound like??).

    I just felt like his comments offended all children at all levels of special education. From those who need some supports for reading or math, etc., to those who are full time in enclosed classrooms. Our kids, who ride the "short bus."

    Hey. My son LOVES his "short bus," folks. He loves school. He loves just about everyone he meets. He has no idea who 50 cent is, thankfully, and could care less what this joker's opinion of him is.

    I think the best thing we parents of special children (and those brave enough to come alongside us) is just to keep doing this. To dialog, to push back against the hate. And to take our children out into the community--to be SEEN and met and made known. How else will anyone figure out how terrific they are?

  11. There is a lot of hate out there directed at children and adults with special needs. All you need to do is search for the R word on Facebook or YouTube. Most of them never get called on it. I believe it's up to us as parents and advocates to teach, not preach about our kids. When people stare at Molly on the city bus I ask them if they have any questions. I work toward teaching people that we're all one step away from disability. I also think it's important to bring it home to people so that they can relate to what you are saying. I wrote to one comedian who made a living off of Special Olympics jokes and the R word and asked if he used the slur "chink" in his act (he has two adopted Chinese children). He wrote that I gave him something to think about and he hasn't used the R word since. I don't think he ever set out to be hateful, he just hadn't given any thought to what he was saying. I think we all need to speak out and not feel bad about offending the offender. Who knows what we were really like before we had a child with special needs? How much did we really understand about people with differences? I feel like I am who I am today because of Molly and couldn't ask for a happier life.
    There are also people who hate because they don't think their tax money should go to kids who might not give back to society some day. Just this week in the New York Post there was an article about how much money the city has to spend so that one child with severe disabilities can get to school. The journalist didn't come out and say it but the message was, what a waste of money.
    It's our job to make sure we speak out and teach the world just how amazing people with disabilities are. 50 years ago Special Olympics was born. Imagine how far the world will come 50 years from now!

  12. Ellen-
    Have you ever heard of the National Inclusion Project?The website is inclusion project.org.The children's program is Let's ALL Play.

  13. It angered me when I saw that on twitter. I tweeted my son's picture to him and demanded an apology. Even after he apologized, I still felt angry. The fact is, he shouldn't have tweeted what he did. Words hurt, and they hurt our children the most. An apology doesn't wipe away the hurt. Maybe, though, the next person will think twice before saying or "tweeting" such garbage.

  14. First I have to say I LOVE your blog. My children do not have special needs, but I work with adults with developmental delays and autism. As a mother of children without special needs, I have been struggling to help my kids understand that everyone has differences, and that everyone MUST be treated with dignity. Don't get me wrong, they don't tease others or anything of the sort, it's just that unfortunately, they have so little exposure to people with special needs. There should absolutely be more integrating of these two 'worlds.'

    I have been having MANY discussions with my children about such topics, but with so little first hand knowledge, it can be difficult for them to grasp. Any suggestions on how to make all types of people part of their worlds? This is something that MUST change. We are ALL human, and should treat each other with respect. The best way I see this as becoming a reality is as others have said.... Teaching our children and exposing them to what humanity is in reality!

  15. AW ellen I could give u a mouth full on this subject race disability are terms made to isolate individuals and put them on a track. We need to have discussions involving kids and adults with a verity of disabilities and races. come together and blog here is a post I wrote about the subject

  16. Max is an axolotl.

  17. Like most parents my other has kept a TON of stuff from when my sister and I were in elementary school and decied as we are entering HS its time to clean out. The most interesting thing was the program from the talent show form when i was in 1st grade and a copy of the poem i wrote/read. In the program it stated Act 14 Kathryn my last name reciting a poem "We are all the same." which she wrote.
    Here it is:
    We are all the same
    Even if we dont all look the same or walk the same or talk the same or do things the same way We are all the same We are all students at my school name and all deserve to be treated the same way ... Kindly
    even though I was only 7 i think i captured the spirt of respect for ALL pretty well

  18. I think you're right it starts with parents.

  19. A comany that recently started with inclusionary stuff is Americna Girl. They now offer hearing aids for dolls.On a spread where they had 3 dolls one had a hearing aid and was holding up a paper that said A+ and the other dolls were right next to her. Needless to say wearing a hearing aid myself i was very happy to see a doll with a hearing aid.I always wondered why there were no dolls with hearing aids.I ripped out that page and am in the process of writing a letter to American Girl thanking them. Also the new movie mekenna shoots for the stars airing on saterday on NBc at 8pm EST has a main carachter in a wheelchair(she is Mekenna's tutor.)

  20. News flash it's a tweet NOT a comment. Anyway I've grown up with a cousin who had spastic four limb cerebral palsy. That prepared me for my daughter with spastic one limb cerebral palsy who is 18 months old. My husband had no experience with kids with extra needs. But he was happy to educate himself about her diagnosis.

  21. You want kids with special needs to get involved in sports? Ok, they can go try out than with the sports teams like the rest of the children. How is that for inclusion?

    Or do you want them to have their own league? Because if so, where is the funding for this league coming from? Most sports, with the exception of football, basketball, and baseball don't bring in any money. Those 3 usually hold up everybody else. So you're asking to put another burden on tight athletic programs to hold up yet another league?


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