I have never been a violent person, at least not instinctively. Whenever I was teased as a child—I struggled to read for much of elementary school and wore a lot of white jeans, so I was teased a lot—I’d opt for silence or a quick joke, usually at my own expense. I’d level my aggressor with my apparent disinterest or with my words, never with my fists. All of that wit and restraint dissipated, however, whenever I saw anyone making fun of my older brother Sean.
A guy doesn’t forget his first fight, but odds are he may not remember the factors that lead to the violence in vivid detail; I remember mine as if it happened an hour ago. I was eight years old and walking from the computer lab to my second grade teacher Mrs. Ouellette’s classroom at the Cashman Elementary School in Amesbury, Massachusetts. As I descended a set of stairs, I spotted my brother, who was 11 and in the fifth grade at the time, walking through the hallway in front of me. His gait—awkward and strained and favoring his left side—was unmistakable.
Outside of the sort of rivalries that are inherent to any set of siblings, my brother and I were close. When I saw him at school, I was excited to catch up to him and say hello. I was proud to show off to my friends: “I am eight and I am terrified, but I have an older brother in this building, so I am protected. Do you have an older brother in this building? No, I didn’t think so. I am invincible.”
As I approached Sean, I spotted another older kid—a classmate of his, a “cool” kid—trailing a few paces behind and mimicking my brother’s lopsided stride, beating his chest with his right arm in an exaggerated manner, his hand formed into a contorted claw. A few of the jerk’s buddies snickered—some with glee, some with expressions that denoted discomfort and the false bravado that comes from being with your pack. I knew what was happening, but I wasn’t prepared to take on six or seven confident, bigger kids by myself. That is, I wasn’t prepared to take them on until I got close enough to hear what their leader was saying.
I can’t repeat the sentences verbatim, but I do remember hearing the two words that enrage me still: “cripple” and “retard.”
It wasn’t like my brother couldn’t hear them—he’s got the ears of a vampire bat. (That thing they say about the senses you do have compensating for the senses you don’t have is true.) Even at 11, he carried himself with grace. It couldn’t have been the first time he was exposed to the grotesque behavior of others—others who were terrified of otherness—but it was the first time I’d been exposed to it. I didn’t react well.
My wit failed me. My logic failed me. Instead, I charged—a frothing child, my chest hot and buzzing—with the same foolish mania that’s inspired so much historical tribal violence. I leapt at the offender and grabbed him around his throat, pulling him to the ground before punching his face and chest. He eventually turned me on my back to return the favor—he was a lot stronger than I was, after all—but not before I cut him above his left eye. (In my head I was the victor, but I’m sure I must have gotten my ass kicked very, very badly.) A librarian eventually separated us, and as I was being hauled off to the principal’s office I screamed, “If I ever catch you calling my brother a cripple or a retard again, I’ll fucking kill you!” I believe this was also the first time I ever said any iteration of the word “fuck.”
This would happen a handful of times in elementary school. I’d see someone give my brother shit, I’d try to calm myself down, try to fight ignorance with reason, but ultimately resort to violence. I would make sure I hurt the offender, leaving no space for the misinterpretation of my intent. This logic worked fine for me when I actually saw someone bullying my brother—I could only imagine what he went through when I wasn’t around to protect him. I’m sure those instances were far more frequent.
Sean was born on August 11, 1981, a healthy, “normal” baby boy. Four hours after his birth, he experienced a sharp spike in blood pressure. This spike went unnoticed by the medical professionals responsible for his care, and resulted in a massive stroke which paralyzed the right side of his body and rendered him all but blind. In the morning of August 11, 1981, my brother was new and pink and without complication—by that afternoon, he was fighting the fight of his life.
Cerebral palsy is a misunderstood disorder, but then any disability—mental, physical, or otherwise—is misunderstood. Sometimes the complications occur prenatally, others postnatally (as with my brother). Oftentimes, those affected by cerebral palsy are confined to a wheelchair* and experience such severe vocal cord paralysis they’re unable to speak clearly enough to be understood. Sometimes, they’re unable to speak at all. This inability to speak clearly, or at all, is frequently misinterpreted as a corruption of cognitive function. It is not. (I recommend you read Christy Brown’s autobiography My Left Foot, or at least watch Daniel Day Lewis’ turn as Brown in the film of the same name, if you want to better understand cerebral palsy.)
In the most severe cases, cerebral palsy functions as a cruel tomb—you’re alive, your mind is fully intact, but because you’re not able to express yourself, or perhaps because you’re in a wheelchair, everyone around you assumes you lack any cognitive function. Fortunately for my brother, he’s not confined to a wheelchair and his vocal cords were left unscathed. He’s full of horrible puns, so there are times I wish he couldn’t speak—but I’m mostly glad he can.
As it turned out, Sean actually became a public speaker of sorts. While his physical impairments dictated that he couldn’t participate in athletics—which must have bothered him—his obsession with sports was clear. Ask my brother the hospital at which Pete Maravich was born—fucking ask him the precise moment at which Pete Maravich was born—and he’ll tell you. He could probably tell you what color underwear Maravich wore when he signed for the Hawks in 1970. If there’s a dictionary definition of “sports nerd,” it’s got my brother’s likeness printed directly to its right.
So, Sean found away around not being able to actually play sports himself. He couldn’t launch deep threes during basketball season or blast slappers during floor hockey season, but god dammit if he couldn’t talk a blue streak. And at the beginning of his 6th grade year, he approached his gym teacher and asked if he could announce the games.
We grew up fans of the Celtics—our father was a courtside reporter when Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins traded blows in Game 7 of the 1988 Eastern Conference semifinals, a game my brother remembers but a game that I am too young to have any recollection of. This means we also grew up fans of Johnny Most, and to know the manner by which Johnny Most called a game is to know the manner by which my brother called a game. He was somewhat cantankerous (with a few accidental but somehow charming F-bombs dropped in every now and then), but always with the wit only a deeply knowledgeable sports mind can muster. As far as my brother was concerned, the first game of the middle school gym league might as well have been Game 7 of the NBA finals. It is this passion I most admire about Sean. Unfortunately, not everyone else did.
While announcing a basketball game of zero significance—it was middle school gym class, so no game was ever of any real importance—my brother made a call that one of the athletes on the floor didn’t agree with. After the game, this athlete—able-bodied and popular—stalked my brother into the locker room, grabbed him by his midsection, crumpled him up like a used tissue, and stuffed him into a trash can.
It sounds like a joke, like some farfetched storyline pitched in the Freaks and Geeks writer’s room that everyone deemed too absurd to really work. But it wasn’t. My brother is a resilient guy, and he’s never been one to play the “woe is me” card—and I often wonder how many more indignities he faced in silence, without an ally or a cornerman. How many of his callous peers called him a “retard” or “cripple,” and how many took it a step further? The trash barrel couldn’t have been an isolated incident.
When my brother first told me that story when we were kids, it broke my heart. It breaks my heart still.
Epithets don’t appear out of thin air; there’s always some etymological context for our ignorant speech. “Retarded,” and any permutation thereof, spawned from “mental retardation,” a term once used to clinically diagnose a person as “intellectually impaired.” (I take umbrage with “intellectually impaired” as well, but that’s just me splitting hairs.) “Mental retardation,” as a term to denote “intellectual disability,” began to replace the term “mental deficiency” in the early 1960s. It also replaced other inarticulate terms such as “cretin,” “moron,” “mongoloid,” and “imbecile,” and so in that context, “mentally retarded” must have felt like a win. (Etymological transmutation has also affected some of the other less than tactful terms that were once employed to describe a person with an “intellectual disability.” Take imbecile, for example. Today, the chief definition of imbecile is, “a stupid person.” Here, let me use it in a sentence for you: “If you call someone a ‘retard,’ you’re a fucking imbecile.”)
For a word that’s been denounced by the disabled community and its champions, it’s still awfully commonplace to hear “retarded” used in casual conversation. A person wouldn’t use the n-word or the f-word in casual conversation, unless of course you’re a terrible cretin—there’s that etymological transmutation thing again—so why is it that “retard” and “retarded” still see widespread use?
Part of the issue is that mass media reinforces bad behavior. “Retard” and “retarded” and “cripple” are used with regularity as punchlines by lazy comedy writers. One of South Park’s most celebrated episodes is called “Cripple Fight,” for Christ’s sake. Yes, I’ve heard the “South Park empowers its disabled characters” line before, but there’s a difference between satire and derision. When many of your most successful jokes are made at the expense of your disabled characters—or when you lazily call these characters “cripples” and “retards”—it’s clear that the intent is trending more toward derision.
Of course, South Park’s writers aren’t the only offenders. The Black Eyed Peas were the first band to sell half a million downloads with the inimitable “Let’s Get Retarded,” which later became “Let’s Get It Started” in retribution. (Its offensive title notwithstanding, “Let’s Get Retarded” is a garbage song, and its popularity raises an even bigger question: What the fuck is wrong with your taste, America?). The writers of Family Guy are also frequent offenders, and often mock those with language and speech disabilities.
The list of so-called comedy writers and songs using “retard” or “retarded” is an unsurprisingly long one—and their presence is a cosigning of the behavior that the receiving parties endure. The nonchalant wielding of words that are widely accepted as hate speech is utterly insane. It normalizes hateful language, and that normalization is damning.
The acceptance of such language begins at an early age, and the children wielding it aren’t always the ones most at fault. I can, to a degree, understand a child’s proclivity to ridicule that which appears to be different—when you’re a kid you want so badly to be self-assured, to be liked, to fit in. It’s Darwinian. This behavior—this idea that the disabled among us are indeed different and should be viewed as such—is also reinforced by the earliest socialization and group-learning opportunities available to kids. Our school systems point incoming children to a fork in the road their first day of kindergarten: “Normal kids to the right, special needs to the left.”
I’m biased, but have to ask why those with the same cognitive learning skills are immediately pulled out of regular classes. Because the physical disabilities of these children—say one with cerebral palsy—might cause a minor distraction here and there? Right, okay—because the kid with ADHD who can’t stop slamming his fucking pencil against his desk, and the other kid who feels the need to make a fake fart noise every nine seconds aren’t constant, monumental fucking distractions. Got it. But what if this separation carries over to adolescence and then into adulthood?
Well, I can say from experience that the systemic failure to integrate the disabled among us from an early age—a seemingly obvious decision that would no doubt help to destigmatize disability—does carry over into life outside of education. For most U.S. children, schooling and the socialization and relationships they make therein inform how they socialize and make relationships elsewhere. How else would this go? Normal kids to the right, special needs to the left.
Sean, for example, has always been aware of his otherness—the leg braces made him aware; the surgery he endured at age 12 to lengthen his heel cord and the subsequent year of rehabilitation made him aware; the trash barrel made him aware; the asymmetry of his gait made him aware; the anxious glares of his peers made him aware. Being treated as if he has the mind of a child by fellow adults continues to make him aware.
Somehow, despite the asinine propensity of others to emphasize his otherness, my brother doesn’t feel his otherness. He is aware of it, but it does not define him. No matter how badly the world around him seems to want it to, it simply does not.
Sure, most 34 year-olds don’t need to ask their younger brother to thread their belt through the loops on their khakis and fasten the buckle. Sean does. Most 34 year-olds can tie their own shoes. Sean cannot. Most 34 year-olds don’t need to wait till their father cuts their steak before they are able to eat. Sean must wait.
But most 34 year-olds haven’t memorized every note on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, including everything on the four disc box-set reissue. Sean has. Most 34 year-olds don’t possess a near encyclopedic knowledge of Civil War history. Sean does. And most 34 year-olds can’t tell you where every guard in the history of the Celtics went to college, and the nicknames of those schools. Sean can.
I’ve been able-bodied my entire life, but I grew up with a brother who has not been. Maybe that’s put me at an empathy advantage—I’ve witnessed him struggle to do things, simple things, that I took for granted, and so naturally I’m bound to be more sensitive to the needs of someone with a disability. Sean, like everyone else, is complex. The epithets thrown at him—the people who refer to him as a “retard” or “cripple”—undermine his complexity, and make one-dimensional caricatures out of living, breathing humans who are vibrant in personality and scope.
Exposure aside, I still find it hard to believe—and that’s putting it lightly—that many seem terrified of the disabled among us. People fear what they don’t want to understand, and that fear can lead to some pretty awful behavior. I wish I had some profound mission statement to end with, but I don’t. All I can really say is that it’s time to do better. We’ve got to stop saying “cripple” and “retard” and “retarded,” and call out those who do. We’ve got to stop being afraid of otherness, but rather embrace it as something to learn from. We’re not confused school children anymore, we’re adults.
Terrence lives in Boston, where he works as an editor for America’s Test Kitchen. He’s co-founder of Bender Magazine, and has also written for Vice Sports, Tasting Table, and Serious Eats. Sometimes he tweets poorly @TerrenceDoyle.