My response to a stranger’s ‘short bus’ joke

The mother of a child with Down syndrome responds to a stranger's 'short bus' jokeAbout a month ago, Jeff and I were at Costco during one of our weekly errand days. Somehow, we had successfully maneuvered through I-don’t-know-how-many shoppers who, spotting a free sample station, had stopped mid-aisle with their carts straddling an otherwise viable thoroughfare to savor a glazed meatball or some other freezer-to-table delicacy. Ah, but Costco etiquette is another topic for another day. Today, I’m sharing a lesson in tact.

If you’re a Costco shopper, you know that the cashier or the boxer will pack your purchases into boxes for ease of transportation. Because we transfer most of our purchases to ice chests in the car, we do not require boxes and we make it a point to let our cashier know this every time we visit the store. This particular visit was no exception. The boxer, however, must not have heard the cashier’s directive to skip the boxes because she began packing our purchases into boxes. Here is where the story takes a turn. The cashier repeated that we didn’t need boxes and then turned to us and made what she, apparently, assumed was a lighthearted joke at the expense of the boxer.

“Sometimes we need to tell her things three or four times for them to sink in. She takes the short bus to work.”

The statement was clearly said in jest. The boxer in question appeared to be a perfectly healthy young woman with full intellectual capabilities. Both the boxer and cashier were playful in the situation, attempting to engage Jeff and I in their antics.

If you know anything at all about me, you probably realize the cashier’s mistake: attempting to bring me on board for some spirited taunting at the expense of an entire population of developmentally-delayed people. Sadly, I do have to admit that still today there continue to be people who are amused by distasteful jokes that take aim at individuals with special needs. Unfortunately for that particular Costco cashier, I am not one of them. You see, when I hear someone use the word ‘retarded’ inappropriately or tell a “joke” that belittles those with intellectual disabilities, it’s like everything comes to a screeching stop in my head. Time shifts to slow motion. My adrenaline spikes. I draw in a sharp breath and instinctively pull back. Every fiber of my being withdraws into one giant cringe. The offender, meanwhile, goes on in oblivious conversation while I try to formulate a calm and rational response. Nine times out of ten, the moment passes and I completely miss the opportunity to address the issue.

But not that day.

“We have a daughter with Down syndrome,” I told the cashier. “And just this morning she quite literally took a short bus to school. So excuse me if I am not amused by your little joke.”

I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that what happened next seemed very much like a vacuum came and sucked the life right out of that woman. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to be offensive.”

I’m sure she didn’t. I don’t think most people go around looking for words to inflict pain on others. I can give her that. And that is why I promptly accepted her apology and moved on with (admittedly slightly awkward) small talk.

Here’s the thing: I get tired of holding my tongue when people–friends, even–use the word ‘retarded’ as a slang word for stupid. Most of the time when it happens I’m so busy trying to formulate a response that the moment passes. And so just this once, I didn’t worry about formulating a response and instead just spoke true words that would–ideally–open one woman’s eyes to a prejudicial predisposition she probably wasn’t even aware of. I don’t know if the interaction she had with me that day had lasting effect on her, or if it faded into the monotony of her day. What I do believe, though, is that the next time words like those are on the tip of her tongue, she’ll probably think twice before she speaks them.

I guess it’s like the starfish story. I can’t single-handedly eradicate insensitive language. But I think a little courage goes a long way in spreading awareness about the use of crude jokes and insensitive language.  I hope so, at least.

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