31 for 21: More on Stereotypes

Sometimes I forget that the whole reason there is a need for advocacy is because the world my son was born into is not entirely kind or accepting.  It’s easy to write things here on my blog and feel a sense of rightness, and be lulled into believing that if I explain myself well enough, of course people will get it.  Not that everyone has to agree with me – seriously, that’s not it.  With regard to advocating for Finn and trying to raise awareness, the bottom line to me is this: are you a person committed to doing your part to make the world a kinder place for everyone, or not?  I guess another way to put it is, are you part of the problem, or part of the solution?

People want to cling to their rights and freedoms – the right and freedom to think and say whatever they want, with little or no regard to how those views and words might impact someone else.  Just because you can, though, doesn’t mean you should.

I guess I was a little surprised that a couple of people left comments on my recent People-First Language and Stereotypes post defending  . . . well, stereotypes.  I’m having a hard time understanding how anyone can defend this or believe that it’s not offensive.  I think Michael explained it best:

‎”All redheads are adorable” is a generalization. “All Jews are stingy” is a stereotype. To be sure, a stereotype is a form of generalization, but by no means are they synonymous. In the former, one might focus on the commonalities, but they don’t define the subject. You know there’s more to the redhead than that he’s adorable. Stereotypes, on the other hand, and by design, ask you to not look beyond the stereotyped characteristic; they dehumanize.

I think maybe people think that stereotypes are okay as long as those stereotypes are casting positive characteristics on a group of people.   Why would anyone be offended to be told that their kid is seen as “happy” and “loving”?  Think about other stereotypes that are supposedly positive:  “Black people are such great athletes,” or “She must be a good cook, she’s Italian!” or “Women are so nurturing,” or “Boys are really good at math” or “Gays are such good decorators.”  Nobody gets away with those kinds of views anymore.  So why is it okay when you’re talking about people classified by disability?

How would these fly:  “I love epileptics!  They’re so down to earth.” or “Diabetics are great!  They have such great senses of humor.”  or “Cerebral palsy people are so awesome!  They’re such nature-lovers” or “Fat people are so much fun to be around!  They’re so jolly and they always know where the good food is!”

Any time you stuff an entire class of people into a narrow, rigid box, it’s wrong.  It’s hurtful, and it’s offensive, and it strips them of their humanness and individuality.  It’s really just a way of people dealing with their own feelings of discomfort about people who are different from them.  It’s arrogant and presumptuous to think you have someone pegged based on one aspect of their humanity.  When people say things like “I love Downs kids!  They’re so loving and happy!” what I really hear is “I don’t need to bother getting to know your little boy or seeing him as an individual, because I already have him all figured out!”

How would that feel to you?  If it were you or your child being stuffed into a box like that?

I’m not even entirely sure where these stereotypes about Down syndrome come from.  There might be truth to the impression people have about kids with Down syndrome being happy and loving, but the same can definitely be said about typical kids, too.  A lot of kids – whether they have Ds or not – are happy and loving.  And some are not.  (I keep thinking about that mom who is a special ed PE teacher . . . I wonder if she’s ever stopped to wonder what her “Downs kids” think of her.  Maybe some of them think she’s annoying.  I wonder if she’s ever considered the possibility that they even have the capability to form impressions and opinions like that.)  Maybe Down syndrome still makes people so uncomfortable that they respond to this discomfort by focusing on characteristics that are really present in the general population, but that somehow make them feel better about their discomfort about Down syndrome.

As for Finn, well, in a lot of ways he’s a typical three-year old.  In this ongoing science experiment I’ve been engaged in called Child Rearing for the last almost 15 years, I’ve had the opportunity to observe at close range five other three-year-olds before him.  Is he loving and happy?  Sometimes.  He’s very affectionate with his family, that’s for sure.  Is he indiscriminately loving and affectionate with strangers?  Absolutely not.  And all of my kids have been pretty affectionate with their family, so I absolutely don’t chalk that up to the fact that Finn has Down syndrome.  He’s not extraordinarily happy, or unhappy.  He’s certainly not mindlessly cheerful.  He can throw a mean tantrum, and is very adept at both experiencing and expressing displeasure.  He throws things he doesn’t want, and he screams when he gets mad.  He whines and does the “limp noodle” thing when he doesn’t want to go somewhere.  Yes, he can be a pain in the ass, my sweet little Downs boy.

Anyway, I’ve probably belabored this more than advisable; people are going to see things the way they want to see them.  I just want my kid to be seen as a unique individual, that’s all.



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One Comment on “31 for 21: More on Stereotypes”

  1. jen
    October 16, 2011 at 4:53 pm #

    For what it’s worth, I wasn’t defending stereotypes or stating an opinion that saying such things was okay. Most of what I said was in the form of a question, because it was just that – a question. I wanted to hear more thoughts on the matter, to help me think it through. I don’t have any children with DS, so I appreciate hearing from someone who does.

    Thank you for this additional post. It does clear things up more. While what that woman said may have been better than saying the opposite – that she doesn’t like kids with DS – it certainly could have been better. But if every child with DS she has dealt with (and it sounds like there have been many), how do we get around such stereotypes? If even a special ed teacher who deals with them as a career has this experience….

    I wonder how we can break down those stereotypes. Teach Finn to be a pain in the ass? 🙂 I joke. Sort of.

    Good job at keeping these discussions rolling. That’s what 31 for 21 is all about.

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