Make friends with someone who has Down syndrome

Treating people who have disabilities with respect is more than just not saying the ‘r’ word.

Denis Kuvaev | Shutterstock

My social media channels and Facebook support groups for parents of children with Down syndrome lit up last night and this morning with some fresh news. Walmart was offering, on its online store, mugs that included a slur against people with intellectual disabilities.

When advocates got wind of this, reaction was swift. The store was inundated with calls, emails and angry Tweets, telling the retailer in no uncertain terms to immediately stop selling the mugs, emblazed with the words “Got retard?”

The online retailer Amazon had also been selling the mugs, and both companies pulled the offending products from their shelves once word spread and advocacy groups like the National Down Syndrome Society, the R-Word Campaign, and even State Senator Ted Kennedy Jr. weighed in.

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Advocates and parents, myself included, shared the news and breathed a sigh of collective relief. Good had won out over darkness, and Internet trolls and those with malicious intent were once again relegated to the sidelines. Sure, the surge of publicity for such a mean-spirited phrase probably emboldened some, those who like to hide behind online anonymity to tear apart the intellectually disabled for sport. It is all too easy to stumble upon these pockets of misanthropy, where it’s cool to throw around the very same slur to ask why Walmart hires greeters with intellectual disabilities in the first place.

But if I pause for a minute longer, a question comes to mind. How might people like myself and my friends and those in my community be contributing to the disregard for those who think, act or speak differently?

I have a few ideas how.

1. When we casually say something like “Oh, that’s so retarded,” as a commentary on something we think was ill advised, or something we did ourselves, either clumsily or by mistake.

2. When we think about people with intellectual challenges as fundamentally separate from ourselves. “Special people,” a certain line of thinking goes, “belong in special places,” as though not being able to express one’s thoughts or perhaps interact with the world the way others do means that people no longer have the same dreams, the same desires for love and friendship, that others do.

3. When we fail to teach our children to include and befriend those perceived as different. I have heard heartbreaking stories of, for instance, young people with disabilities or speech impediments that joined a club or a team and put in just as many practice hours as anyone else. When the time came for end-of-season celebrations, they were not invited by their peers to participate. How incredibly sad that something that was in our grasp to fix went unfixed. In most of these cases all that was lacking was one person—just one person to say “hey, come join us.”

We are all beautifully and wonderfully made, and we are this way through and through without any effort on our part.

We must be aware of complacency in our midst. We do need to go out of our way to be kind, and to teach our children to be kind. It is not always easy, for them or for us. Yet it isn’t especially hard, either.

I know this because my young son with Down syndrome has a typically developing twin sister who, without knowing it, has worked every day of her eight years of life to include him, help him, and pave his way in the world. He has paid her back tenfold with his energy, his ribald sense of humor, and his undying devotion. But even though I have this natural alchemy right under my roof, I still have to remember to instruct my children, even my son with Down syndrome, to treat everyone with respect. To have a little extra patience for the kid who is loud, or who pulls hair, or even the child who says mean things to them at first, because we never know what someone may be struggling with and who might turn out to be a fun friend.

We are all beautifully and wonderfully made, and we are this way through and through without any effort on our part. But what does take work is to step outside our comfort zones.

I say this not as someone who has it all figured out, because I don’t. I say it as someone who is striving for a broader understanding of what makes us human.

I challenge you to this: get to know someone with Down syndrome, an older teenager, or adult. Relate to them as a peer rather than a charity case and see what happens. If there is a child with autism or another disability in your child’s classroom, encourage your son or daughter to get to know the other child and arrange a playdate or invite them to a birthday party. When you see someone in a wheelchair, do not automatically assume they need help. In all likelihood, they are getting through their day more nimbly than you are.

I say this not as someone who has it all figured out, because I don’t. I say it as someone who is striving for a broader understanding of what makes us human. I say it as someone who likely has “R-words” in her past too, and would like to see only certain other words in the future for her son. Those words are self-determination, friendship, love, and respect.


Vicki Vila
Vicki Vila
Vicki Vila is a freelance writer and editor who blogs with humor at about raising a son with Down syndrome and his two sisters, and about broader issues of disability. Formerly a New Yorker who worked as an editor for The New York Times, she now lives in the South, where she enjoys the abundance of nature.

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