November 2012

Ann Coulter vs. the Disability Community

By Cindy McCombe Spindler

“I highly approve of Romney’s decision to be kind and gentle to the retard.”

This is the tweet that conservative columnist Ann Coulter sent out to her 280,000+ followers in the Twittersphere after the third presidential debate. In the days that followed, her tweet was retweeted 3,625 times and “favorited” 1,527 times. The disability community voiced outrage over this remark, hoping to hear an apology from a woman who has had eight New York Times’ bestselling books.

When the time came for Coulter to talk about her comment on CNN’s Piers Morgan, Coulter was unapologetic, saying the “word police” were after her. She added that she was referring to the president, not someone with Down syndrome. Coulter explained that people with disabilities aren’t the ones offended by the word “retard,” it’s the spokespeople for the disabled who are offended.

I would like a chance to explain why I am personally offended by Coulter’s remarks. I gave birth to my daughter in 2003. I welcomed her into this world with wild anticipation, and still to this day I regard her birth as one of the defining moments of my life.

At about six months or so, I noticed she wasn’t hitting her milestones properly. I started visiting doctors to figure out what was happening.

After countless examinations, tests and consultations over a period of years, she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy with some learning disabilities.

It wasn’t with one swift anointing that I was welcomed into the special-needs community; it was a series of several anointments. Slowly, I saw all the lines erase – the physical, the mental and the spiritual – in my life as the disabled community – once the “them” – became us. “Welcome to Holland,” the flyer said. “And you thought you were traveling to Italy.”

When you are an us in the disability community, much of your life is different.

For me, it meant shifting into low gear in my career that was previously on high speed. It meant maneuvering between doctors and specialists, often who were giving me conflicting reports. It meant having specialists in my house telling me how to teach, feed, play and foster communication skills in my daughter.

And ultimately, I am sad to say, it meant me putting my own needs on the backburner while I focused my attention on inching my daughter’s way up gross-motor charts and fine-motor charts, and taking a battery of psychological exams. In those early years, I learned a lesson I should have learned from airline attendants – you do need to put your oxygen mask on before you take care of your child. I ended up having a breakdown, which led to a divorce.

I bootstrapped myself and forged ahead. I started what I consider to be wave two of my career. At times I feel like a walking Swiss Army knife.

What does that look like? I work during the day, but also have these extra considerations to take into account:

I have a team of about 10 people who work with my daughter at her school. I am a firm believer in inclusion, so I have worked to keep her in classes with her peers. We are in constant contact via phone and email.

I manage a network of doctors that I keep informed of any issues or changes in my daughter.

I make sure I have anti-seizure medication on hand for the two doses my daughter needs per day.

Family time for us ends early, as my daughter goes to bed at 7 p.m. and sleeps 12 hours per night. She doesn’t function properly if she gets less.

I spend a great deal of time trying to figure out clever ways of teaching my daughter. I have taught myself a lot of sign language, for instance.

Every vacation, field trip, visit to the mall, athletic event or concert has special considerations to factor in.

I am currently working out a way to talk to children in my daughter’s classroom about disability and inclusion issues.

Then there are those things you don’t consider. Most of them have been issues my son (born three years after my daughter, and developmentally normal) has brought up. On Christmas, his classroom saw my daughter’s classroom in their dress rehearsal for the play. After it was over, my son had to answer questions such as, “Why wasn’t your sister singing? Why does she walk funny? What is wrong with her?”

I’ve since worked out a little script with my son. At times, he wants to defend his sister and other times he wants to distance himself from her.

Overall, my daughter does have learning issues. However, her disability is considered mild to moderate.

I have to admit, there are only so many hours in the day. When I joined the disability community, I stopped following news as closely as I once did. But I do follow the news in the disability space as much as possible.

A while back, I started to hear about a campaign called “R-Word: Spread the Word to End the Word.” This is an effort to abolish the use of the word “retarded,” as it is deemed hurtful to those with intellectual disabilities. I was thrilled to look at this website and see all the thoughtful information that has been pulled together. Even Public Service Announcement videos have been produced.

When it came to signing the petition on this website promising that I will no longer use the word “retarded,” I did so with no pause. I thought about having my daughter sign it, but it didn’t seem appropriate quite yet. But I did decide to have my son – I think he was 5 at the time – sign this petition. It is a petition that 312,549 have signed today.

“I am going to teach you a word tonight, and then ask you to sign a pledge saying that you will never use it,” I told my son. “’Retarded.’ People use it to mean ‘loser’ or ‘stupid,’ but it also a word that is used to describe people who have a hard time learning.”

We talked about a few other people my son knew. Then he signed the pledge. If so much thought and care was put into asking a 5-year-old to not use a word that would be hurtful to people with disabilities, why is it okay for someone who has a massive microphone to use this word to describe the president, or anyone else, without any care or remorse?

Coulter is on a path, and so am I.

From where I sit, her path seems to be a quest for publicity and fame. To my ears, her words sound like someone chewing on broken glass.

My quest, as well as that of others I have met in the disability community, is one for respect and dignity. We aren’t in this space to make a fortune. Most of us are working to ensure we get our basic needs met.

Although I would love to hear an apology from Coulter, I am not expecting one.

However, I’d like to ask you to join my son and me in ending your use of this antiquated word.

Cindy McCombe Spindler is the president of AbilityCatcher, a company with the goal of humanizing the way the world thinks and treats individuals with differing abilities. She lives in San Diego with her two children and husband, John.