a depressing compliment

Today, a young man with a developmental delay was interested in what our e-readers were and what they could do.  I explained to him how they could be used to play games or read or use apps, just like a tablet.  We talked a little bit about Netflix, I asked him if he had any more questions, and when he said no, I told him to have a nice day.

After, a woman came up to me and told me she was impressed at the respect I had showed him.  I said thank you really awkwardly, because I didn’t expect her compliment, and then I helped her find a book, and the day went on.

It’s a nice feeling to have your attention to others noticed and remarked upon, but the fact that she felt my behavior was notable makes me so, so sad.  We should all make it a practice to be kind and considerate of others, no matter who they are.  People with cognitive disabilities are just as human as anyone else and deserve to be treated as such.

This is also related to why I’ve come to feel so strongly about children’s books that feature disabled protagonists wwondermaggotmoonho also happen to be geniuses.  Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper is, in my opinion, one of the absolute worst for this, but there are plenty that do it.  It feels to me like the characters’ brains are there to “make up for” their disabilities in these books.  Disabled characters of average or below-average intelligence are shunted off to the side or ignored entirely.

In American popular culture, especially popular culture aimed at children, it seems like it’s always “it’s okay if you aren’t smart at school, because you’re probably really smart at something else!” It’s never “it’s okay if you aren’t smart at school, because you can be a good person!”  I’m all for teaching children that there are many different ways to be intelligent or talented, but there are children out there who don’t feel like they’re especially smart with anything; when we tie their worth so strongly to their supposed smarts, we do those children a serious disservice.

If you want to read books where disabled protagonists are allowed to be disabled without having to justify their existence by supersmarts, please try Wonder by R.J. Palacio and Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner.  These are books where disabled characters’ compassion and strength of character genuinely matters more than their grades in school, and I absolutely recommend them.

Stories like these are important.  I hope that children and teenagers who grow up reading them will treat people of all abilities with the respect they deserve, regardless of their intellect.