-- Ernest Hemingway-----
Yeah, I saw it.
It didn't call me out, not by name. But the language felt familiar. The author is someone with whom I've corresponded a few times, and when I went back and looked at her emails, I discovered why her essay triggered a sense of deja vu. She'd said almost exactly the same thing to me in email, in response to my own use of the word "broken".
But that was almost two years ago.
I don't know what triggered this essay, and really, it doesn't matter. When you're the parent of a child with a disability, your life becomes a cycle of routine and unpredictability. It makes for a curious emotional mix, in which you find yourself struggling not to fall into a rut and at the same time struggling to avoid being knocked off the rails by the unexpected. (Ruts and rails. I'm mixing metaphors, sorry.) I don't know what brought this topic back up again, but it's obviously just as real for her now as it was two years ago, and I understand that completely.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'd be a hypocrite if I were to suggest that Michelle O'Neil is somehow wrong to speak her opinion about my word usage. There seems to be a perception among some that the disability community has (or should have) a universal approach to things like language, but nothing could be further from the truth. I have many issues with People First Language; I personally can't imagine anything worse than asking a child to "take ownership" of their disability while somehow believing that they can do so without also taking responsibility for it. But one thing that truly pets my fur backwards is the idea that People First Language MUST become standard usage within the disability community, professional and family alike. We don't all approach disability in the same way, and Michelle O'Neil's opinion about my use of language is as valid as anyone's. Well, of course it is.
At the same time, however, there was one part of her essay that troubled me.
The term "broken" continues to float around a bit in special needs circles. It peaks my curiosity, but no longer stings.
At best it is an attempt at conveying the struggle and challenges a special needs child faces. In no way do I dismiss those challenges. Our family faces plenty of challenges, but some children and parents deal with more than I can ever imagine and I mean no disrespect. At worst, however, the use of the term "broken" in reference to a child with special needs is a publicity stunt aimed toward offending.
I appreciate that she means no disrespect, but I guess I should be clear about something now. There are particular aspects of my writing that exist to get your attention. And when I feel like someone needs to be called out, I don't hesitate to do so. (Hi, Bernie Goldberg.) But where disabilities and parenting are concerned, I'm not sure exactly what I would hope to accomplish by intentionally offending other parents, people whose philosophies and approaches and sources of inspiration may differ from mine, but whose struggles and pain are all too familiar.
When I put Schuyler on a t-shirt or program Pinkessa to shill for A&W Root Beer, then you'll have your publicity stunt. (Note to A&W: Call me.)
"What will Schuyler think when she reads that you believe she's broken?" I'm asked, and the implication is that Schuyler will be hurt and insulted by the word. But to me, the question itself is offensive. It suggests that Schuyler is simple enough and unaware enough that she'll never know the difference, if only the people around her choose the right words.
Schuyler knows. When a TSA agent sarcastically asked her if she could talk, she simply answered "No," without sadness or regret or hurt. She knows, and she compensates, and while her lack of anxiety or sadness about her condition may not last forever, her understanding of exactly who and what she is and what she can be will always be her greatest strength.
"I can't talk," Schuyler says simply, her hand on her throat, but even as the listener begins to make that face, the one etched in unwanted pity, Schuyler is reaching for Pinkessa, impatiently waiting for it to power up so she can tell you that her name is Schuyler, and she's ten years old, and she has a dog named Max and a hamster named Swee. She's broken, and she knows it, but she's got a hell of a fix for that, and she's waiting for you to be impressed. Which you should be.
Broken things of little value are discarded. Broken things of worth are made whole again. Despite all my self-doubts, I continue to flatter myself enough to believe that come what may, Schuyler will always know in which of those categories she belongs.