We raised a son with cerebral palsy. And when I say ‘we’ I mean myself, my husband, our daughters, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbours, friends, husbands new wife after we divorced and all her relatives. Then there were the therapists, doctors, nurses and special ed teachers, classmates, really, the list goes on ad infinitum.
When my son was in high school, he and I had a standing date to watch a television series called “Life Goes On”. It was about a normal family with normal everyday problems – mom, dad, two teenagers (brother and sister) and their collective dilemas creating the weekly plots. Corky, the boy, had Down’s Syndrome. I think this was the first-ever tv show to normalize a special needs kid. The actor, Christopher Burke, was actually a Down’s kid himself, and epitomized the truth that special kids do grow up to be healthy, self-sufficient, independent men and women who not only grasp life’s challenges, but embrace them, just like anyone else. So for about three years, I think, my son and I tucked in after dinner on Sunday evenings to watch this show which more closely portrayed the social problems he faced in life than any other tv show around.
By this time I was a single mom and really quite on my own as my other children were grown and off building familes of their own. This series was like my support system, reinforcing manners and values I was attempting to instill in my son.
From the beginning, he had been mainstreamed. That meant he attended regular schools, with a mixture of regular and special ed classes, tailored by his needs and ability to handle the workloads. For him to be able to watch another male (Corky) work through so many of the social problems he, himself lived, was not just amazing – it helped teach life lessons in a way his teachers and I couldn’t. I was so grateful to the writer’s and producers of this show…
There was a particular episode where Corky, tired of being Mr. Nice Guy, spent the hour behaving like a jerk. At some point, one or both of his parents sat him down and let him know that his ‘handicap’ was not a free pass to behave badly. He was subject to the same social code as the rest of us mere mortals. My son had been hearing from me since he was able to throw a spoon across the room that a bad temper and poor manners were not God-given rights just because he had a couple of physical problems. I expected the same respectful behaviour from him as I did his sisters and that a jerk was a jerk and an asshole was an asshole, regardless of how a person’s legs did or didn’t properly function.
Not too long after the airing of this episode, my son and I were at a bake-sale fundraiser which involved a stack of other CP kids. One of them was in a wheelchair and a bad mood. He kept running his chair into people. They would grimmace, but then not comment as soon as they saw he was ‘challenged’ (good grief why can’t we say ‘handicapped’ anymore?). My son was chatting with a girl when this kid tried to slam into her walker. My son grabbed an arm of his chair, stopping him in his tracks and got in the kid’s face. “Hey pal, that wheelchair doesn’t come with a license to be an asshole. Knock it off.”
I was so proud.
Sarah and Bristol Palin’s outburst over the ten second Family Guy joke about Down’s Syndrome and the Governor of Alaska made me remember this incident, this time in my life, because ‘they’ are the classic jerks. By constantly placing all physically/mentally challenged persons into a bubble to shield them from the rest of the world, they are the ones engaging in discrimination. Publicly pointing the finger and saying SEE OVER HERE! THESE PEOPLE ARE ALL DIFFERENT! COME LOOK! creates a barrier, immediately separating ‘them from us’.
By treating the DS girl like anyone else in their scripts, Family Guy served to incorporate DS kids into the mainstream, not the other way around.
I’m guessing Chris Burke laughed at the Family Guy bit. It included him in society, with full rights to be made fun of, laughed with and gave him a bit of recognition.
A bit of nostalgia for those who may remember:
This isn’t Corky. What – you thought Chris Burke was the ONLY Down’s kid actor?
Sarah, Bristol – stop helping. It’s discriminatory and distasteful. Plus, no one’s asked for your help and you do it badly.
commentor junasie14 brought up the point that the voiceover of the girl in the Family Guy episode portraying the Down’s Syndrome character actually is an actress who has Down’s Syndrome. Her name is Andrea Friedman and coincidentally is the same actress who portrayed Corky’s girlfriend and love interest in the aforementioned series Life Goes On.
Talk about bringing a discussion full circle!
I’ve seen Andrea in episodes of Law and Order, ER and Touched by an Angel and I think she’s a terrific actress.
Hey Sarah! You think maybe it’s constitutionally ’okay’ for a person to make fun of themselves? Or do we now need to get your personal approval before cracking a joke?
To comment on this post, please scroll up to the title: It Takes a Whole village To Raise a Child and click the word comment just beneath. Thanks, OzMud