For Hank

My run-in with two clueless jerks during a recent shopping trip

Most of what I’ve written in this space over the past six months has focused on local politics and current affairs, but this week I’m dedicating Second & Flume to my 2-year-old son, Henry, who is the center of my universe and also happens to have Down syndrome.

I’d always planned to someday write about what it’s like having a child with special needs as a way to advocate for people like him. I have a lot to say about how he has changed my life and my heart. But I wanted to do it on my terms—when I was ready to put into print something that is most precious to me.

Life sped up that timeline this past weekend.

That’s when I encountered, for the first time, an instance of overt prejudice toward people with intellectual disabilities. Two employees of a local grocer were stocking shelves at the front of the store and very loudly—and repeatedly—imitating the voice of someone with Down syndrome.

At first, I thought I must be mistaken. I wasn’t. The two guys, who are in their 30s, were going on and on, shouting out the same sentence as they unpacked soup. Another employee, a woman stocking nearby, giggled like a silly schoolgirl as they continued for minutes and began recalling the television show Life Goes On, and imitating one of the central characters, Corky, who has Down syndrome. One of them started singing the show’s theme song before breaking back into the Corky imitation.

There was other cruel banter, and that’s when I couldn’t take it anymore.

I walked my cart straight up to them, and though I really would like to have had an earnest conversation about how people with Down syndrome are individuals who aren’t deserving of this ignorant commentary, I sort of lost it. “Hey, I have a kid with Down syndrome, and I find this really fucking offensive,” I told them. They looked extremely uncomfortable and both said, “I’m sorry.”

I continued, “You never know who’s in here.”

“You’re right,” one of them said, looking down. I was being placated, though. So, I turned to the other one. “I cannot believe you guys.”

The second guy started saying something to the effect that they were acting out a scene from the show, as if that was an excuse. “I heard everything you said, and I’m telling you that it’s super offensive.” Silence. I walked off and ended up ditching my cart full of groceries and going home.

I could tell other shoppers were offended, too, but they didn’t speak up, probably because they don’t know anyone with Down syndrome. Later, I wondered if they’d have stood by had these clowns been making racist, homophobic or sexist comments, or been making fun of some other marginalized group.

I’m not going to mention the store by name here, because I don’t think these two are representative of the place. I’m just going to make a plea. If you hear someone making heartless or bigoted comments about vulnerable human beings, whoever they might be, please speak up. Do something. They need a voice.