Wednesday Words: On Being Grateful

grate·ful (grātfəl) adj.
feeling or showing an appreciation of kindness; thankful.

There’s a story floating around the internet this week, about a mystery diner who paid for a family’s dinner after seeing the family’s little boy lose his cool in the restaurant.  The boy is nonverbal as a result of a severe form of epilepsy.  The diner also sent over an anonymous note, which read “God only gives special children to special parents.”

I think everyone agrees that the mystery diner was coming from a kind place.  No one could rightly say that the mystery diner had set out to make some kind of damaging statement.  In fact, the family seemed overwhelmingly positive about the experience.  As far as that family felt that someone in the world not only refused to negatively judge them, but went out of their way to make a kind gesture, I am not upset about that incident.

I’m even bit less upset about the special kids to special parents note, because as damaging as I think it is, I also recognize that I have no idea who those people were and how would they know that their note would be bouncing all over Facebook and email inboxes everywhere.

(For the record, I really do think that the “special parents” thing must stop.  It reinforces the misconception that children with disabilities are burdens and not suitable for “regular” parents.  If one is willing to accept the premise that certain children are “special”, then one must accept that those children are fundamentally different.  Categorizing children in this way is the foundational thinking behind segregation, exclusion, and even selective termination, in my mind.)

What I am upset about, however, is this idea that the I, as a fellow parent of a child with a disability, must be grateful that someone was willing to buy that family dinner.

Sorry, I’m not grateful.

Do I think that mystery diner was evil?  Of course not.  Do I think that I need to be grateful for every gesture of kindness, however problematic, simply because it involved a child with a disability?  No, I really don’t.  In fact, I think it hurts more than helps to categorically cheer on stories like this.

I’m not grateful for this story, because in all honesty, that family should have never felt so ground down and judged in the first place.  I’m especially not grateful that this story is being passed around as if it is a “win” for the disability community, because frankly, it isn’t.  It is a single incident of a person trying to show a very frustrated family that not everyone thought poorly of their child who was struggling in public.  A decent individual moment, perhaps, but that is it.  I just cannot understand why this would be news.

I can’t find any gratitude within myself in this story, because now it isn’t about the individual family, or even the mystery diner’s intentions.  Now, the story is about “amazing person does kind thing for a disabled kid”.  Now there are tens of thousands of people around the world who have heard the phrase “God only gives special children to special parents” and think that it is some kind of beautiful truth.  Now there are tens of thousands of people around the world who have heard the message that people with disabilities only need kindness and charity, rather than respect and equality.

Lest anyone think I’m a cold-hearted cynic, I will say that I’m grateful that the family had a moment when they felt like the world was not looking down on them.  I’m thankful for that, because it hurts my heart to think that any family would struggle with unkind judgement and harsh criticism while trying to do the best for their child, disability or not.  The rest?  The note, assuming a stranger has a belief in God, separating out children with disabilities as “special”, the use of that child as a help object, and the resulting media flurry?  I’m not feeling a ton of gratitude there.

It doesn’t make sense to me that this is news.  Or, perhaps more accurately, it depresses me that this is news.  Why are half the media stories in my alerts about Down syndrome and disability always feel good inspiration stories?  Why is it so hard to get the world to discuss the much more pressing substantive issues that face the disability community today?  I know that there is some talk of these more substantive issues, but it isn’t enough.

I have often heard the opinion that if the disability community is too angry, too critical, too picky, then it risks spurning the goodwill of society and therefore losing potentially sympathetic allies.   Maybe my critique of this story makes me too angry, too critical, too picky.  I’m ok with that, because when it comes to a civil rights movement to replace the charity model that pervades disability advocacy, I am picky.  When I see sentiments that I think are harmful to the goals of inclusion and real acceptance, I am critical.  When it comes to the constant message that children with disabilities are lesser beings, then I am angry.

Show me a day when these kind of stories cease to be “news”?  Then I’ll be grateful.

11 Comments on “Wednesday Words: On Being Grateful”

  1. Miriam says:

    I always love reading your perspective. I also saw that story, and I appreciate what you have to say about it. The “saying” rubbed me the wrong way too, but I didn’t take the time to think about why. As far as more substantive issues being discussed, I think most people just want fluff, they don’t want to dig deeper or be more thoughtful; unless something directly affects them.

    • jisun says:

      Sigh. I know, the fluff. I do get the desire for feel-good, but there are so many better instances of positive humanity out there. I really didn’t want to sound like a big old negative nancy, but I was really bugged by this one. Anyways, thanks for the comment. I am heartened to see that someone who isn’t “in the community” saw that phrase and raised an eyebrow as well.

  2. Lisa says:

    Gosh, I agree with you so much. Everyone wants a feel good story, and not enough people see the harm in these stories. And honestly? I’ve seen reference to this particular story on FB, and I haven’t clicked on any of the links because I’m just tired of this tripe. It doesn’t make me feel grateful or inspired either – just mad that we’re expected to be grateful, that we’re all, as parents of kids with disabilities, expected to sigh a collective sigh and go, “Awwwwww!”

  3. Stephanie says:

    Spot on post! I have always disliked the “special kids, special parents” thing. I feel like that saying means that I have to be more patient, more kind, more giving, etc. just because my kid has a disability. I feel like it means I can’t lose my shit or have a bad day as a parent. I wish people would understand that having a kid with disability is random. It happens to all kinds of people–good, bad, ugly, pretty, rich, poor, and beyond. None of us are special; we’re just parents.

    I have seen this particular story circulate on FB this week and I haven’t bothered to even read the whole thing. Once I saw the picture of the restaurant paper with the “special” crap on it, I didn’t bother. I too agree that we shouldn’t have to feel grateful for these things. We should be able to go out in public with our kids and do what we want–eat out, shop, playground–without feeling the stares, the comments, and the forced “gratefulness” when someone says “oh he’s so well behaved. I didn’t expect that.” Yes, someone said that to us last weekend while at a restaurant. I kept right on trucking out the door without even a look at the woman. I mean, really? What did she expect, a heathen child with slobber all over his face? If she was looking for that, she should have looked at the kids 2 booths away from us–typical developing kids who yelled nearly the entire time we were there.

    • jisun says:

      Funny, right? Even when a kid isn’t reinforcing the negative stereotype, even the “compliment” seems wrong, because all the compliment does is reinforce the negative stereotype. Lose-lose situation.

  4. Liz Tree says:

    Thank you! Very well written. I appreciate your views and how articulate you are! I especially like the part about catorization leading to exclusion, etc. anf the civil rights movement replacing the Charity movement. I often do not like the “feel good” articles… but it is hard to put my finger on why… you have given me some clarity. Hey if people want to be cool to others awesome….but don’t treat my kid like a “charity case” Treat him with respect as you would want some one to treat your kid, when he or she might need a helping hand.
    Thank you! I will be refering back to this in the future to help me put into words thoughts and ideas that I would like to share!

  5. Jenny says:

    I’ve read this post a few times now and every time I do it stirs up different thoughts and emotions. I am one of those that do like the “feel good” stories, and I completely despise the “inspiration porn” term some use, I just think that’s going to far. Just because some people don’t need to hear or see these stories doesn’t mean no one else does. Somewhere out there there is a new Mother devastated that her newborn has Ds…She needs these stories. She may not later, but in the beginning she does. They help her see a brighter future than she is picturing at this time.

    As far as being news worthy…What the hell really is news worthy? I was really pissed off the other night when I watched a news story on Soldiers in what was it, Afghanistan? Rescuing some stray fucking dogs. People are DYING over there and this made the news?? Random stories just get thrown out there all the time and that’s the way it is. So I’m wasn’t to worried about this story circulating.

    I just saw this story as a simple act of kindness. One the Mother teared up over and truly appreciated. I didn’t see it as hurtful or damaging to my own child. And I didn’t take offence. It was just something nice some one did for some one else. BUT….

    But…Where you did make me think was the whole “Special kids to Special Parents” thing…I remember being handed that line when Russell was born and knew full well it was complete bullshit. I knew I was far from special. But I also knew people were saying it to be kind so I didn’t get all ragey over it. But what you wrote really made me question what that line truly means and why so many take such offense to it. With this one line…

    It reinforces the misconception that children with disabilities are burdens and not suitable for “regular” parents.

    You have changed my whole view on it. People may say it out of kindness but the thought of them thinking Russell is to heavy a burden for a “regular” parent to raise makes me extremely angry. And I have to say, it hurts me deeply. People thinking you have to be extra strong or special to raise a little boy as beautiful and amazing as mine. Ug. I have no words.

    So ya, I think a little differently on this now.

    I thought this post was excellent, it really, really made me think and question things.

    • jisun says:

      I’ve thought of the argument that new parents need these stories, I’m conflicted on that. Instead of writing a novel here, I might write more about it, because it has been on my mind a lot. I was a new parent pretty recently. Heck, maybe I still am “new”. I’m close enough that I remember that desperate feeling for something “good”, but I’m far enough away to really be questioning it.

      Anyways. It really makes me happy to hear that the post made you think. The act of writing makes me think a lot and I love that maybe what I write sparks things for others as well.

      I’m also thinking a lot about this “special kids to special parents” idea in light of the Issy Stapleton case. Very sad and very troubled. :(

  6. Jenny says:

    Shit. Just saw how loooong my comment was. Sorry about that! lol

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