The ThiRd Rail — 5 Minutes for Special Needs


I’m still trying to figure out twitter. Can’t decide if it’s really useful for me or not. I’m trying out HootSuite which makes it more accessible, but still kind of overwhelming. Anyway last night as I was scrolling through the most recent tweets two words jumped out at me. Perhaps they would have jumped out at you, too, if like me you are raising a child with special needs and helping take care of an elderly parent.

The tweet said: “I take back that last tweet. It’s insulting to retarded old people with Alzheimer’s. No one should ever be compared to the Mets.”*

I stared at it for a while trying to decide if I needed to reply. I’ve read so much about the R word, particularly when it is misused as an insult. I knew this guy was just trying to be funny (and failing) but I just couldn’t let it go. I replied, hesitantly – not even sure how to reply without offending myself: “Alzheimers is not retardation. It is brain cell death…with devastating results for the individual and their family.” (If you want the full tour check this out.)

He wrote back: “I know. I had a family member go through it.” So how could he be joking about it so flippantly? And maybe not everyone in his audience knows? I replied: “not everyone does. I have both special needs child and a MIL with dementia. Neither is funny. Thanks.”

He wrote back: “I have two brothers who are special needs. I helped raise them. I find it hilarious.” He certainly has a different sense of humor than I do: “there are some funny moments, I agree, but the conditions themselves are not. TTYL” We wouldn’t have a category called “laughing through the tears” if our lives were total sob fests, now would we?

Twitter is a big place, and has been a great tool for social media – arguably being as much a benefit to people with special needs and their families as it is a breeding ground for insulting twits. I certainly can’t on my own police every tweet for the R-word, or misuse of the term “special needs” or poking fun at seniors with cognitive impairment. Is it worth it to even try to engage these folks or should I just “unfollow” and get on with more effective advocacy. What do you think?

* The tweet to which that one refers said:  “Watching the Mets play baseball is like watching the Special Olympics if the Special Olympics involved only old people with Alzheimer’s.”


On an entirely different note, I wanted to let you know about a great little book I reviewed at my personal blog, “Signs of Trouble”. Perfect for reminding your children about emergency situation skills!

Email Author    |    Website About Kimberly

Kimberly is the mother of three wonderful children: an eight-year-old who is somewhere on the autism spectrum, and twin four-year-olds who are just very busy little people. We live on routine with a side of novelty.

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1 Laurie June 1, 2011 at 6:05 pm

I would have said something too, if it was someone who I usually enjoyed and connected with online. And I know what you mean about the Twitter thing. It is kind of a personal choice about whether to invest in it or not, which depends on what you want from it – learning, connection, support, marketing, a platform that draws ads? As an aside – as a coach, I help people make social media marketing strategies. If you ever want some ideas or to brainstorm more about this, feel free to email me:

2 KDL June 1, 2011 at 6:26 pm

Hey Laurie,

I’ve seen you posting there and would love to chat more with you about it. I’m such a newbie that I hadn’t really interacted with this guy before (and may not ever again!) but it was an interesting experience, anyway. Thanks!

3 Kathleen June 1, 2011 at 6:18 pm

Omigosh, I would have gotten nothing done all day, I’d been so ticked. Good for you for responding. It probably does no good, so I think there’s an argument to be had on either side…but nonetheless…good for you!!!!

4 KDL June 1, 2011 at 6:27 pm

Lucky me it was in the evening and I was so tired that nothing could’ve kept me awake, but it was bugging me so much I still had to write about it and get some feedback. Thanks, Kathleen.

5 Trish June 1, 2011 at 7:17 pm

I am on Twitter but rarely Tweet. I just can’t quite get into it, but I keep it around for the occasional use.

On the R word, I just started sitting next to different people at work and two of them use that word often. I know they probably don’t even realize it’s an issue, and I haven’t quite figured out how to raise it with them. I do plan to address it but need to figure out how to go about it still.

6 KDL June 1, 2011 at 8:06 pm

Yes – that would be really hard in a work setting – both to listen to all the time and to figure out how to handle diplomatically…since you have to keep working with them. I’m really far removed from the work scene – perhaps one of our readers will have a good suggestion for you? I hope!

7 Lauren June 1, 2011 at 9:17 pm

He could probably had been sarcastic, although the thing with sarcasm is, is that it doesn’t translate at all online. The problem with social networking nowadays, is that people tend to lean towards meanness, like it’s something of a badge to be proud of.

8 Janet June 2, 2011 at 11:08 am

As someone who has Alzheimer’s and developmental delays (autism) in my family (my late father, my son) I have been known to crack a joke but ONLY in private w/ someone who knows/understands what is really going on and how I really feel. There are times when if I don’t laugh I will cry (and just might not stop!) I would never, never, never put something in anytype of social media.

Concerning poor choices in use of language (which the R-word is), I am lucky that at work (aerospace engineering) I just don’t have to deal with it. I think I would be upset if ANY bad language is continually used. I talk with my 7th and 5th grade daughters often about language choices. We also talk about how even if a term is not intended to be bad, it still sounds bad and can be very hurtful. As in people used to use the R-word to intentially, hurtfully describe people like their brother, while today many just use it without thinking.

9 Susan (5 Minutes for Mom) June 4, 2011 at 12:50 pm

I find use of the “r” word to be offensive and a sign of ignorance from the speaker.

As for debating on Twitter, I generally don’t respond to tweets I don’t agree with. I just don’t have the time to engage in discussions with people who want to tweet negative stuff. They are not likely to change just because I’ve challenged them on a tweet and I don’t want to get frustrated by an upsetting, public confrontation.

That said, your response sounded good and hopefully he’ll take it to heart.

10 The Best Policy June 5, 2011 at 9:04 pm

People who challenge the whole “End the Word” campaign often get a charge out of being contrary. If they continue to fight with you, they are taking pleasure from your discomfort or upset. There’s a special place in hell for them, but that’s a topic for another day.

The problem I see with the emphasis on the R word in and of itself, is that, when you make one word verboten, another one will soon be chosen by the urban lexicographers to be used in a denigrating way. The words moron, idiot, and imbecile come to mind–those words were all once actual MEDICAL definitions, like mental retardation was (and still is). Crippled and spastic are also words that used to be commonly used in medical journals and reports. As these words entered common speech to be used as insults, the medical community sought different (oftentimes more wordy) terms. Already kids are using “special” and “special neeeeeeeeeeds” in an ironic or insulting way, as well as “short bus” and “exceptional” to tweak and prod.

The real key is to try to change hearts and minds with regard to people with developmental, intellectual and physical differences. If children are raised from an early age to treat their peers with these conditions with dignity and respect as a matter of course, people will be less likely to use their limitations as punch lines.

11 KDL June 7, 2011 at 7:13 pm

You are right, and that is one of the tricky things with language I guess. Pretty much anything can be turned into an insult depending on the person who is speaking/writing and the person who is hearing/reading. As you mention I have often seen people misusing the words special needs – which makes me hesitate to use it, even as I write here. We have to start young. I hope to instill this value in my own children and in their friends. It’s a big job.

12 Forgetfulone June 6, 2011 at 10:57 pm

I have a hard time holding my tongue, but when I don’t, it never yields the results I want. I would probably end up unfollowing them, but I’d probably say my piece first.

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