Skip to main content

Don't label people with Down syndrome

By David M. Perry, Special to CNN
November 17, 2012 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Perceptions about Down syndrome have changed in recent years, says David M. Perry, who has a son with this disability.
Perceptions about Down syndrome have changed in recent years, says David M. Perry, who has a son with this disability.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ann Coulter's "retard" comment not aimed at Down syndrome, she said
  • David Perry has son with Down syndrome and says culture has come far in accepting disability
  • He says some call Down syndrome kids "angels" but that's little better than "retards"
  • Perry: We should see humanity of those with Down syndrome -- they're people, not syndromes

Editor's note: David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. His son, Nicholas Quillen Perry, has Down syndrome.

(CNN) -- "It breaks my heart to think how many people would not have chosen to keep that precious angel." -- Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, speaking about abortion and Down syndrome at the 2012 National Convention.

"I highly approve of (Mitt) Romney's decision to be kind and gentle to the retard." -- Ann Coulter, tweeting about the third presidential debate.

"No one would call someone with Down syndrome 'retard.' I call you a 'retard.' " -- Coulter on Alan Colmes' Fox News Radio show.

David M. Perry
David M. Perry

Let's pretend that Ann Coulter is telling the truth in that last comment. Yes, she called President Barack Obama a retard, but at least she claimed she'd never insult someone with Down syndrome. Even if she's lying, we have come a long way. Children with Down syndrome still get bullied or even abused, and adults with any disability face an uncertain future, particularly in an era of austerity, but today few would call someone with Down syndrome a retard to his or her face.

For this, as the father of a boy with Down syndrome, I am grateful.

In fact, over the last 50 years or so, the lives of people with Down syndrome and other disabilities have improved in many remarkable ways. Most parents are now raising their children with Down syndrome in their homes rather than sending them to live in institutions. Government programs, especially through early intervention and special education, employ teachers and therapists who have helped these children learn beyond our wildest dreams.

Medical advances not only prevent many of the most dire threats to their health but begin to promise new treatments to make it easier for them to learn. Extended families, churches, community groups and nonprofits all work to support families such as mine.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



And sometimes, when relatives or church members or kind strangers meet my son or hear that I have a boy with Down syndrome, they smile and tell me that "people with Downs" or "Downs kids" are God's angels sent down to earth. I smile and thank them and agree that people with Down syndrome can be pretty great.

But while good intentions count for a lot, "angel" makes me no happier than "retard." Most parents who have spent time changing diapers, dealing with tantrums or trying to get a sleepy child, with or without Down syndrome, ready for the school bus in time know that "angel" doesn't always cut it.

People talk about Down syndrome "special angels" or "hidden angels" across the Internet and media. Reece's Rainbow Adoption Ministry, an organization that does spectacular work finding homes for orphan children with Down syndrome, has an "angel tree" on its website, with pictures of children in need of adoption. The founder writes, "The beauty and innocence that a child with Down syndrome brings to the world is truly one of Divine nature." This is a little more complex than "angel," but the focus on innocence points in the same direction.

Ann Coulter's backward use of the 'r-word'

No human, including my son, is entirely innocent or angelic.

Symbols, labels and representations -- in media, literature and our daily conversations -- shape reality. The words "retard" and "angel" represent images that dehumanize and disempower. Both words connote two-dimensional, simple or limited people. Neither angels nor retards can live in the world with the rest of us, except as pets, charity cases or abstract sources of inspiration.

Special Olympian fires back at Coulter
Down syndrome girl crowned dance's queen
Pulling planes for Special Olympics

I am delighted to see the tide turn against the "r-word." After Coulter tweeted about the president, John Franklin Stephens, a man with Down syndrome, took to the Internet and to CNN. He argued that comparing the president to people such as him ought to be a "badge of honor" given the pathways he has forged through life's complex problems. The wave of support and publicity received by Stephens gives me hope for my son and for all of us who think our lives are improved by a society that includes everybody.

Language changes as knowledge and attitudes change. Doctors started using the word "retarded" to replace "Mongoloid Idiot." A lot of good came with that shift, because it indicated a new understanding that people with Down syndrome were not monstrously limited creatures best locked up in an institution.

Today, we talk about "developmentally delayed," and a lot of good has come with that shift, too. People see a child with developmental delays as having the potential to learn, to grow, to develop and to become a self-advocate.

And even Coulter, as a result, claims she would never call my son a retard. But other words will replace it. People will find new ways to use language to divide, to objectify and to dehumanize. The issue isn't language, not specific words, but representation.

My son is neither angel nor monster, just human. It's true that he's more confident in the world of empathy than of language. He reflects and intensifies the emotions of those around him. He meets love with even more love. These traits can be wonderful, and they're pretty typical of people with Down syndrome. But complex emotional lives define us as human, not angelic.

So let's listen to the rueful laughs of so many of my fellow parents who insist: "My child is no angel." Let's stand with Stephens as we fight against hate speech. Let's include people with developmental disabilities fully into our society. Most of all, let's always think of people with Down syndrome as people, first, not syndromes. Then the cruel words employed by clownish bigots will vanish into historical memory.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David M. Perry.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT