“I think he’s retarded or something,” the woman whispers to her partner.
No one else hears it, but that hushed comment booms in my ears. My eyes get big and I stop breathing for a moment. I look at the doors. As soon as they open, I’m going to bolt. I have to get out as fast as I can. But when we arrive at the next station, I stay put.
I sit there, wondering if I should say something. Then our eyes meet, and the man appears sheepish. She doesn’t, but she starts talking first.
“Does he talk?” I have learned that this—like the “Does he walk?” question—is a stranger’s attempt to acknowledge my son’s disability without coming right out and saying it.
“No, not yet, but he’s learning,” I respond. “He had a stroke before he was born so there are lots of things he’s still learning to do.”
The man tries to be helpful. “Oh, like cystic fibrosis or something.”
Now I know that the learning curve is steep and I decide to be gentle.
“Cerebral palsy,” I tell them.
She jumps in again. “Oh, I have a friend who’s daughter has that. She still can’t walk.”
While I can’t understand how someone who knows someone with a disability would ever use the R-word, I continue with a gentle approach.
“Yeah, it takes a lot of work and a lot of therapy—we’re actually on our way to therapy now,” I say. “But he’s a hard worker, smart and a really great kid.” I am trying to bring it back to my son, to make them see this amazing kid and not that other word.
Then, as if on cue, my son smiles and starts his coy flirting routine. He instantly wins them over.
“Watch out,” I say with a smile to the man. “He’s a flirt and he works fast.”
“Ha,” says the man. “‘He works fast.’ That’s really funny.”
Their stop comes. They are gone.
It all happened so quickly that I only started to process what happened after they’d left.
I should have been harder on them. I should have told them clearly that using the R-word was not OK. Maybe they would have gotten it, but maybe they wouldn’t.
My son is almost five years old now and he’s made incredible progress—he can now walk a bit independently and talk more. But his disability is more evident too, especially when he uses a wheelchair.
These days I have conversations with people all the time about his disability and I welcome the opportunity to educate people in small ways. Most people are kind and interested.
But still, in the back of my mind, I’m waiting for someone to use that word again. I wish I could say I have an answer prepared, but I don’t. I’d like to think I’d be more blunt next time.
Many people don’t get a firsthand view of disability. Every conversation I have is the chance to give people a glimpse into our lives and, I hope, see a small piece of who my son really is.
Kate Wilson is a freelance writer and mom living in Toronto with her magical four-year-old son, Imaani. She is going to give birth to another boy very soon!