It’s not PC, it’s just polite

One of the things I learned and reflect on often after having a special needs child is “political correctness”…it’s kind of the butt of a lot of jokes. I’m thinking about it today after a conversation I had with some people (friends of friends) that I met today at the weekly tuesday lunch.
Some people who have children with special needs, are handicapped in some way themselves, or face any number of challenges in this life view it as their mission…their urgent mission…to educate the world at large about the terminology used to refer to a specific condition or state of being. In the Down syndrome community, it is acceptable and “correct” (I hate that word) to refer to a child or person as a “child (person) with Down syndrome”. Saying a “Downs kid” or a “Downs baby” is not only kind of weird, it’s not really correct. Down is the name of the doctor who discovered Down syndrome (the state of having the syndrome discovered by Dr. Down)…so if you are saying “Downs kid” you are implying that my kid belongs to Dr. Down…who is dead.

What am I getting at? Well, the way I see it, there are three kinds of people in this world. The first group is probably the largest…I think that the general population is so beaten over the head with the “proper” way to act and the “right” thing to say that it almost makes them scared to approach anyone who is different from them for fear that they’ll say something offensive. I hold as one of my basic beliefs that people are really basically good and kind, given the chance. So when someone comes to me and we are having a conversation and they use the term “Downs kid” or “Downs baby” I usually don’t correct them. I DO make it a point to use “child (kid) with Down syndrome”, hoping they’ll pick up on the vernacular. I would prefer that people try to treat each other more kindly, recognize that we are more the same than different, and not be afraid to ask questions. I don’t want them to be scared, or feel pity for, or in any way look at the next person with DS that they see because I jumped on their case about terminology. And, as in most cases, the people who are the exception to this rule are in my family, and I”m amazed they still claim me as their own because I’m cranky about any number of things…including this, sometimes….I think they have to deal with me and my attitude sometimes; although I suspect there have been times my mom would have liked to have sold me to Gypsies after I had been particularly snappy to her. But I digress.

I think there is a very distinct second group who is similar to the first, with one major difference. A large segment of the population simply grew up during a time when people who were different were treated differently. I make a very concerted effort to use the proper terminology, but you can’t change someone who is eighty years old and grew up in a different time….they say things that are “politically incorrect” because at one time it was acceptable in society…

The third group bears only one or two sentences, and then I’ll move on. Some people are just stupid. Ignorance indicates you don’t know better, stupid indicates you do, but choose not to do better. So if I see someone calling my kid (or one of my friend’s kids) the “R-word”, or “mongoloid” you had better believe I speak up, and usually not in a nice way. Some people are just mean. I have heard the argument (usually from my students, long ago, before this really hit home with me) that they don’t use the word “retard” in a rude way, that they are just joking around. I hate that word. It’s mean and vindictive. I could go on about this third group, but it really just hikes up my blood pressure for no reason. Let’s move on and leave the stupid people alone.

I guess I”m kind of in the minority with the first two groups, I know lots of people who speak up and correct other people. I know lots of people with lots of clever come backs. I could go on all day about the things people say and assume about children with DS, and how parents handle it, but that’s not the point here. I choose to look at it this way. I had a conversation today with a guy who said to me something like this: “I haven’t known a lot of Downs Kids, but I understand that there is some difference in severity with Down syndrome, is that true?” So yeah, I could have said to him “Well, it’s children with Down syndrome, first off….” and finished my answer, but you know what? The guy probably would have felt like such a jerk he would have missed the entire rest of the answer. And that defeats the real purpose, the real education that can happen here, which is to tell someone who really wants to know about a segment of the population that I hold near and dear to my heart. So I told him that yes, there are differences in children with Down syndrome…that just like some typical kids like baseball and some like English, some are good at math and some at soccer, children with Down syndrome have strengths and weaknesses. Once you have DS, you have it…there is no “little bit” or “not having it that bad”, because everyone has that extra chromosome…but some show greater physical delays, some greater learning delays. You know what? We had a great conversation about Down syndrome, about what it means, and about what people with DS are like. I loved it. We talked about Ben, we talked about what a gift he was. And at the end, I think we both felt good about the conversation.

Let other people be the word Nazis. I’m going for what matters. I’m going for the substance, not the label.


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6 Responses to “It’s not PC, it’s just polite”

  1. purlewe Says:

    something I always wondered.. how exactly do other cultures use language when they talk about Down Syndrome. I know that when I have talked with my exes folks about a particular child (cousin) they use the cantonese word to describe it.. (never using the english) and the cantonese word does not translate to Down Syndrome at all. And has made me more confused than anything. I never know if they are using a slang or if that is the proper word for Down Syndrome in their country.

    But you are very right in that there are 3 types of folks.. just stay away from the stupid. it burns!

    • coffeemomma Says:

      I don’t know. The most I know is that attitudes toward people with DS vary widely by culture…in some European countries, for example, they have the same attitudes that the US had fifty or sixty years ago…others are far more accepting. I don’t know any families from other countries that have children with DS, so I can’t really say much on this issue.

  2. Anonymous Says:


    Well, Kim, I thought I was informated about D.S. but I was not. Interesting how one has to be educated about such things. I had no idea that the parents of D.S. children preferred a certain kind of language when their child was being discussed.
    God bless
    Mary Ann

    • coffeemomma Says:

      Re: Wow

      Some people are more preferential than others. If I see someone accepting and loving my kid, I may take an opportunity to correct if it presents itself, but really, I want them to accept my kid. So sometimes I let it go. 🙂

  3. hunterholstein Says:

    Hmm… the “r word.” If I MUST use that word, I always preface it with the word mental/mentally. I’ve tried using the term “developmentally delayed” and most people in Souf Cackalackey don’t know what the heck I mean. We used to have a state Department of Mental Retardation which is now known as the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs.

    I hadn’t really given thought to Kids with Down Syndrome versus Down Kids. I’m still getting used to not using the ‘s (Down’s Syndrome). Just my opinion, but the ‘s makes a bit more sense… it attributes the syndrome to Dr. Down as opposed to making it sound like a syndrome that makes one down (that’s called depression, by the way).

    Correcting old people: In these parts, a LOT of older folks of all races still use the term “colored.” I met a woman at my first Wider Op from somewhere north who said “colored” and I corrected her quickly… she didn’t mean to offend, but was always taught that was the nice term. My mom (okay, lots of people) still uses the term “oriental” to refer to people. I’ve given up on that one.

    We all have to accept terminology changes for whatever reason. My mom is always saying her grandmother was classified on legal terms as “Nigro” (pronounced similar to the other N word). Her mom was “Negro,” she was “Colored,” and I was “Black,” now it’s “African-American.” Whatever. I refuse to use A-A because there is more to me than one continent.

    Re: stay away from stupid people: They pay my bills. Let’s keep ’em coming! If everyone was smart, I’d only have heart attacks diabetes calls. Trauma makes the world go ’round.

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