You’ve all heard of the children's story, "The Ugly Duckling," right? For those of you who haven’t, let me brief you a little. It is the story of a little black duck who is different from the rest of his family.
He’s black while all his siblings are yellow, and for that, his siblings make fun of him and don’t play with him. With the accumulation of unhappiness, he decides to leave his family. It is only a year later when he sees his reflection in the water that he realizes he isn’t a duck, but a swan.
I remember when my youngest cousin was born. I was seven. I was telling everyone that she would be mine. In my heart, it only meant that I could share my passions and all my favourite activities with her. Being in a family of nine grandchildren, three girls and six boys, was nice, but my two girl cousins my age didn’t have the same interests as me. So, when my godmother announced to the family that she was pregnant with a girl, I was the happiest kid out there! I started dreaming about my cousin and I playing hockey, basketball and soccer together, about the two of us going to sports events or just watching action movies. The age difference would not even matter. I was dreaming of all the things I could show her and that we would do together.
The fairy tale I had dreamt of didn’t exactly happen the way I had envisioned it. At the age of two, my cousin was barely walking and at the age of three, she wasn’t speaking. By the time she was four years old, she could only mumble a few words, and at six, she was repeating kindergarten. It was at the age of four that my cousin officially got the status of handicapped because of her physical and speech delays.
Even if it was hard to see a member of my family being different, I had to realize that even if it was hard for me, it was harder for her parents. Mind you, it did not take me long to realize that what was hard for me to see was not the differences she had but the way that society looked at her and how much harder her life would be.
You have to understand one thing: my cousin walks, runs, skates and does gymnastics now – but it takes her longer to master a new skill. She also understands everything we tell her – she always has! But though she understands everything, it is difficult for her to say a full sentence or all the words that she’d like to say, so instead, she’s now patient enough to take us by the hand and show us what she wants.
Therefore, every time I hear people say, “You’re so retarded,” as a way to insult others, it makes me angry and it hurts me – even if it doesn’t apply directly to me! When her older brother hears such comments, can you imagine for a second how he feels? What about her parents, her family?
The fact that some people so casually use others’ different realities is even more offensive than the insult itself. These words may seem like harmless mockeries, but they have negative impacts, directly or indirectly, towards people who do have differences. We have to realize that these people are living a challenge every day. These reckless insults demean the real individuals living with handicaps or differences while they should be praised for the way they overcome their challenges every day.
To be fully honest, I had never paid much attention to this social behaviour until it made a difference in my life, until I was personally concerned. I never insulted anyone by calling them “retarded,” but I had never tried to stop that behaviour either… that is, until I personally felt attacked by the words. I am definitely ashamed of it. Although this unconscious demeanour can be interpreted as human nature, it opened my eyes to the fact that people don’t care until they are touched by an issue.
Fortunately, in addition to being able to put in words society’s behaviour that has irritated me deeply for the past years, during the last two, I have made it a point to speak up. For an introverted person like me, challenging my friends and my classmates about their choice of words was hard, and I had to step out of my comfort zone. It is still hard. I still need to step out of my comfort zone, especially when some people say that I am overreacting, that I am being paranoid, and blah blah blah – you get the picture. But each time, I remind myself that it is not about me, and it is not only about my cousin; it is about educating people so that the ones with differences, and their families, can be respected. Not using their differences as a way to insult people is the first step in showing them respect. To quote my dad who likes to quote the 1980s G.I. Joe: “Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.”
To come back to the tale of "The Ugly Duckling," don’t you think it is the perfect analogy of our society? The siblings of the black duck made fun of him because of his differences but if they had dug deeper, they would have found something amazing.
Today my goal was not to make you feel terrible about yourself, because, as I mentioned, I never paid attention to that behaviour until I was personally concerned.
But today, I would like to ask you to take a second to think about your family, your friends, your neighbours. Today, it was about handicaps and delays, but it applies to so many more things in life. “You’re such a Jew!” as Ms Benizri explained last year at assembly. “You’re so gay!” Realize that using others’ reality as a mockery has to stop. You would never think of calling someone cancerous, right? So if you need to enrich your vocabulary to make fun of your friends, please do so! Just make sure it is done in a proper manner.
So again, as GI Joe said: now you know, and knowing is half the battle. To finish his sentence, I’d like to add: now it’s time for you to go figure out the other half.