What It’s Like to
Have a ‘Retarded’ Cousin

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in ,

In Short: Grateful.

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I had a “heart-to-heart” with a neighbor child this morning who called a physically disabled man “retard” as he rode by him repeatedly on his bicycle. The boy isn’t naturally malicious, just exposed to a really crap role model for his parent.

That proved out when he rode up to and stopped next to the man when he returned to apologize for what he said. When the gentleman walked by he said, “Thank you,” and it was as if my cousin spoke, as I recognized the C.P. speech pattern. The boy asked me how I could understand what he said and I replied, “Because I wanted to.” The child just nodded his head in acceptance and rode off.

“Normal” Can Be a Dirty Word

Because somehow someone doesn’t fit with your personal idea of what is proper and correct, aka “normal,” that doesn’t mean that they are lacking or broken. In fact, if I had to pick, I would say that you are probably the broken one.

David was an older cousin who had cerebral palsy. He has long since passed but the few years of his life we were often together made a big impact on me.

I used to explain my ability to understand David’s “garbled noise” (as my older brother called it) as my mind adapting and creating a “filter” that straightened the words out. I really wanted to know what he was saying, so my brain worked it out — I heard words where others heard noise. How is that different than people learning new and different languages like Russian or Mandarin when English is what you were raised with? You adapt.

I was probably the only one that would walk with David without looking around to see if anyone noticed his awkward, stumbling gait. I was truly amazed at his grit and determination to walk when doctors had told his mother that he would be confined to a wheelchair. He never complained about the scrapes he got from the occasional tumble, mostly in the gravel (ouch), and the awkwardness of getting back to his feet. David walked miles every day “so his muscles wouldn’t forget how” — his words. We now know just how right he was about movement helping.

David was quite often called “retarded” or “dim-witted” by adults, which was then picked up by their kids and frequently hurled at him when he walked. Other cousins were younger and less …accommodating… is about the nicest way I can say. They either joined in on the abuse (until I stopped them with threats) or left the area claiming embarrassment.

A teen who clearly sees more humanity in her brother than disability. (Photo: jarenwicklund on Yayimages)

Not only was he not mentally challenged, David was the smartest and most creative member of his family. But no one could see past his physical problems to even begin to see him, or his intellect and curiosity. He wasn’t their version of normal.

I read an analogy recently that compared being “different” to a three-legged dog. The dog’s somewhat clumsy, but when its human threw a ball, it ran after the ball and grabbed it over and over again. Sometimes it tumbled, but it just got up and ran again. It was being who it was.

Differently-abled people just want to be like that three-legged dog — allowed to live their own life, their own truth, to the best of their ability to do so, without others telling them that they don’t measure up somehow. That they aren’t “normal.”

I sometimes say, “You can’t see my reality from where you are.”

Ken Wright is a Buddhist, veteran, world traveler and the guy next door. I am unique, just like you.

Editor’s Note: Ken actually didn’t submit this to WiLt. He’s an old friend who posted this on Facebook recently, and I asked if I could share it here because I saw two lessons in it: the one the kid learned, and the one you learned so you know what to do when you see a kid acting like that. He graciously agreed.

To Tell Your Own WiLt story, see the Submission Guidelines.

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14 thoughts on “Have a ‘Retarded’ Cousin”

  1. Great Story. I continue to maintain that none of us are “normal”. “Differently abled” applies to every human being, each unique in their weaknesses, strengths, and abilities. That is why we need each other to complement and empower one another as we make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

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  2. This story’s title leads us to believe the writer had a mentally retarded cousin; but he didn’t. He had a cousin who had a different handicapping condition.

    I actually had, and still have, a mentally retarded cousin. He was born when I was ten. He hemorrhaged shortly after being born, and suffered brain damage as a result. In fact, the damage was ongoing, for Bobby had bouts of seizures, a convulsion every half hour for about 72 hours, rolling around at monthly intervals. Family members including me took turns staying at his side to keep him warm and place a spatula in his mouth in case he would “swallow his tongue” (as the doctors warned the family).

    His parents tried every known “treatment,” including crackpot “cures.” He was placed on a waiting list for Polk/state School in Pennsylvania. Once very active physically, and able to feed himself and interact with others, he lost many abilities. He survives today, an elderly resident at Polk, which would have been closed last year but for the pandemic.

    Please be aware that the words “mentally retarded” are not demeaning, although the word REE-tard is, because it is so intended. The New York State Association for Retarded Citizens, Inc., was the prime mover in launching the reforms in the care and education of persons with developmental disabilities. The term “mentally retarded” replaced other diagnostic terms used to describe categories of persons with learning disabilities: idiot, imbecile and moron.

    Because those terms were used in jokes and mockery, “mentally retarded” was adopted by the parents’ groups that were formed beginning about 1949 in New York City. Until then there had been no organized programs for the mentally retarded in the world. NYSARC and related organizations and programs have taken to calling themselves Arc, so as not to use the now unfashionable word “retarded,” and to use vague and inaccurate catch-all jargon such as “on the [autism] spectrum.” But it was under the banners using the word “retarded” that we won victory after victory, including special education and community-based services, housing and employment instead of lifelong institutionalization.

    As for the currently preferred terminology, it has not assisted the developmentally disabled. And probably it will be abandoned in favor of some other meaningless descriptor. It’s just a matter of time. I have been hearing expressions like this: “Don’t be an autie!” used to “kid” someone for acting “stupid.”

    Ken’s story is about a non-‘retarded’ story being called a ‘retard’ and harkens back to his cousin who was treated the same way, even by family. Seems to me the title is apt. -rc

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  3. I have a friend at church — he’s 34, with the communication ability of a 7 year old, and his speech is severely hampered. But he’s a smart guy! As we have become closer, I find it so easy — the “filter effect” — to grasp what he says. If more people would accept “differently abled” folks into their lives, how much greater this world would be!!

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  4. Thank you for allowing this to be shared, Ken. It was very touching and a good reminder to us all.

    My brother has Down syndrome so I get what you’re saying about having a “filter” as I am able to understand those with DS without much difficulty. Although my brother has below average IQ and isn’t able to live independently, people have continually underestimated his abilities throughout his life just based on his looks and manner of speaking. He graduated high school and then worked for many years at a custom component supplier, assembling parts and assemblies for aerospace, military, and commercial businesses like Boeing, Comcast, and Northrop Grumman.

    When shown how to do something a couple times, he will be able to reproduce the work reliably from then on. Any time you fly on a 777 you are probably flying with parts assembled by my brother, or one of his co-workers. He is (or was, pre-Covid) active in Special Olympics basketball, track, and powerlifting, and enjoys going bowling with his friends. He would volunteer a couple times a week at our church, stuffing envelopes, organizing the mailings, and shredding anything that needed to be shredded. Many people with disabilities are able to lead very active and meaningful lives, if they are only shown some compassion and perhaps a little accommodation.

    On a related tangent, we also had a three-legged cocker spaniel who was missing a front leg and loved to lay on the grass next to the road, watching the cars go by. More than one concerned motorist stopped to let us know that they thought our dog had been hit by a car. We would always laugh and tell them that yes, he had been hit (by a mail truck, no less!), but YEARS previously. He never seemed to mind missing a leg and got around really well, living to be about 16 years old.

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  5. My mom had a cousin with C.P. I couldn’t understand him but she could. She told me he was so smart — he knew our entire family history, every name & every date! My mom loved and respected him. <3

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  6. If people would simply get to know folks with CP, they would discover that many if not most have superior intellect.

    I am deeply saddened that many entirely accurate terms are no longer socially acceptable because a few nasty people use them as insults and a few overly-sensitive people cannot shrug off those who bear verbal malice.

    Reply
    • They’re no longer in use because they have acquired other meanings. The word “dumb”, for instance, used to mean unable to speak. If you tried to use it for that now, people would misunderstand you. So we use “mute” instead. In many cases the problem is that the word has acquired a layer of negativity too great to dismiss. This happens in other areas, too. The N-word is an example. These things will keep happening until we do the work of changing society so disabled folks like me, people of color, etc. are no longer looked down on.

      Reply
  7. My youngest is autistic, he’s very high functioning but we still have issues occasionally and rude comments or looks from bystanders are very common. One such instance was when he was little, I would take him to his grandma’s house a couple of times a week, always riding the same bus, and so the same bus driver. He liked to stand on the seats to better look out the window and to pull the bell, and it was sometimes a struggle to get him to sit down. That’s something even neurotypical young children like to do.

    Well, one day the bus driver yelled at me to make him sit down or he’d kick us off the bus. This happened a few blocks before we had to get off anyway so I didn’t worry too much. When we did reach our stop, I told that driver that my son was autistic. He’s very smart but he doesn’t understand as well as other children the importance of sitting down while on the bus, and he gets very excited when he knows we’re getting close to our destination and really wants to pull that bell. I do the best that I can, but sometimes it is difficult. I also reported him to the bus district for his rude comment and behavior. So the next time I saw him, he was apologizing profusely and never commented about it again.

    He was at least concerned for your son’s safety, even if he did a bad job in trying to accomplish it! -rc

    Reply
    • I understand his concern and I shared it, I would have my hands on my son whenever he would stand or try to stand, he never did it without me holding on to him. So if he were to fall of his own accord or the bus had to suddenly come to a stop, he wouldn’t go flying forward.

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  8. When I was a kid my next door neighbors had a child with C.P. She was very misunderstood by most of the people she encountered. Now, more than sixty years later, she is still around. I am happy to report that she still receives the love and support of her family, including her parents who are in their nineties now.

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  9. When it come to C.P., the impact can vary greatly. I know a young man with C.P. whose only affliction was mobility. The doctors thought he would never walk, or even crawl. Today he walks, usually with a cane. Otherwise, he very intelligent and a great communicator.

    With that said, I actually do have a cousin who is severely mentally retarded. We are the same age, now in our 60’s. We grew up and played together as kids, but he was like a baby at all times. He never learned to speak, nor how to use a fork or spoon. At best, he ate with his hands. When he became an adult, his mother (my aunt) could no longer care for him adequately, and he was institutionalized. It was sad to see him go. I never looked down on him, or teased him, and neither did any of the other cousins. He was family, and that was good enough for all of us.

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  10. My sister is a Physio, and worked primarily with CP clients for decades — still does, although I think she’s branched out a little now, based on the way health care providers have had to diversify a little in Australia — our new National Disability Insurance Scheme is to “blame”. I am very proud of the work she does.

    And something I say to anyone who ever uses the term “normal” in my presence … “normal is way overrated!”

    Fabulous article, thanks.

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