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Sorry To Have Let You Down, Jonathan

“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do…” Romans 7:19

Nothing feels more frustrating than realizing that I didn’t do something I should have done, and in this case, I really knew I should have said something, but didn’t. The reasons for not saying something do not matter, nor do they outweigh the reason why I should have said something. I just know now that I didn’t say anything and I really wish that I had. And I pray for the chance to redeem the thing I “have left undone.”

You may think this is nothing, and that’s OK. I respect that; you can feel the way you want to about this, that’s your prerogative. But I know better, and have responded well in situations like this before. Except last Saturday.

We were standing in our places at our seats, getting ready to deplane from our American Airlines flight in Miami, on our way to visit Jonathan’s grandmother in Florida. On board with us since our departure from Phoenix Sky Harbor International airport–amid a nearly full plane—was a group of high school aged young people and their adult chaperones on their way to the Dominican Republic, part of a short-term mission team.

What a great time I hope they have on their mission; my participation on a short-term mission team in 1976 literally changed my life and, ultimately, my life’s direction, and for that I am eternally grateful. About 30 kids and adults comprised this team, and they were so excited to be going. Love and energy radiated from them and warmed the hearts of the people around them on board.

So what happened that has me so upset with myself? As I said, we had arrived in Miami, pulled into the gate, the seat belt lights went off and we all stood, gathering our things as we prepared for departure from the plane. A few of these vibrant, happy, Christian teenagers were seated right behind us and they began to talk excitedly about things, and I happened to hear one of these young people use the word “retarded” in a sentence as a synonym for “stupid.” And, remarkably, I didn’t say anything to them.

Ever since the birth of our son Jonathan, who has Down Syndrome, Beth and I have been vigilant in not using the word retarded as a synonym for “stupid,” and have been sharing this idea, based on respect and common courtesy for all persons with developmental delays, with everyone we know, and sometimes with people we don’t know but have used the word that way in our earshot. Frankly, I have become pretty adept at addressing this issue with friends of friends or with total strangers and so it wasn’t out of fear that I didn’t do it. I just didn’t hear it a second time. Usually, I give a person the benefit of the doubt on the first time. So I thought to myself, “If I hear it again, I’ll say something.” But I didn’t hear it again. I didn’t hear it again.

Later, as we wandered into the terminal looking for our connecting gate and a place to eat, Beth looked at me in amazement: I can’t believe you didn’t say something to those kids. I said, I didn’t hear them say retarded except once. Beth: Are you kidding? I heard at least three other times, including twice within ten seconds.

Now you may ask, why didn’t Beth say something to them, but I don’t speak for Beth and perhaps she doesn’t raise this with complete strangers—she is, after all, a little more introverted than I am introverted. (I’ve been working on being less introverted.) Anyway, I didn’t hear them. And frankly, I really should have said something the first time.

Being that they were going on a mission trip, I could have tied my comments in after opening a conversation on partnering in God’s work with people in a different culture and social context, but no less created in the image of God. From there, the connection with people with disabilities is simple—they, too, are created in the image of God, just like we are, and are fully and completely loved by God and complete in and of themselves, just as we are.

From there, I would have asked: So, if I may ask, what do you think the word “retarded” means? Believe it or not, many young people think it means “stupid, incompetent, unbelievably dumb.” Sometimes they say worse; I’ve heard a young person in Dallas describe “retarded” as worse. Then I talk about my son, Jonathan, who has Down Syndrome—and here most young people talk about someone they know with Down Syndrome, whom they really like and usually talk glowingly about. In this case, Jonathan was seated less then four feet away, and I would have introduced him to them, and they would have loved him I’m sure .

After that, gently and carefully, I explain that retarded actually means “delayed,” not stupid. Usually at this point I do a little (OK, maybe a lot) of bragging about all the things Jonathan does that shows he’s not stupid, but I reiterate that he does have developmental delays, and in that respect, his development is delayed, is retarded—but he is NOT stupid. Retarded never means stupid.

I do this never to embarrass or shame the person who used the word improperly, but I do it for two reasons: one, to stop the misuse of the word “retarded.” Families of persons who have developmental delays, and many persons living with disabilities themselves, cringe at the misuse of this word—it is offensive to us and them to use “retarded” as a synonym for stupid. And it is sin; it treats people with disabilities as a second class of human beings, not on the same scale of people not diagnosed with any disability—yet. Nothing could be further from God’s truth. That’s the second reason I speak up.

The first reason I call people on the misuse of “retarded” is to stand up for my son Jonathan and to advocate for him in this world. As you will see in this powerful PSA, this is not acceptable any longer. You see, I want and believe in the possibility a world that includes everyone: male, female, gay, straight, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, [fill in the blank], French, American (both North and South American), Arab, Chinese, Japanese—do you get the picture?—and people with abilities and those with disabilities. All of us have been created in the image of God, and are no less loved by God. All of us. No exceptions.

The only R-Word we need to use regarding people with disabilities is “respect.” And it is out of respect for my son that I speak up for him when I hear people using “retarded” inappropriately. Except for last Saturday. Last Saturday, I let Jonathan down. I let my friends in Detour Company Theatre down. I let all persons who live with developmental delays down, and for that I am sorry. In the future, I promise to do better.

But today, I have to live with my decision to say nothing. And saying nothing in the face of disrespect is what keeps disrespected persons beneath other persons, anywhere such judgments are made, where such oppression is carried out or takes place. Oppression of any human being keeps all human beings oppressed—especially the one doing the oppressing. This is what drove the non-violent actions of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and even Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela in South Africa. “Let’s free both the oppressor and the oppressed!”

Today I live with my non-action and the feeling of letting Jonathan and so many others down. And I pray for the opportunity to redeem myself. Don’t worry, for it is a fact of life right now that my opportunity will come far sooner than I would like. My hope is that one day I will never have to bring it up with anyone again because I don’t hear anyone misusing “retarded” again. And I hope you will join Beth and Jonathan and me in our efforts to create a world that works for everyone, especially those who do not have a voice to speak up for themselves, or don’t get listened to even if they do.

In the meantime, Jonathan, I am sorry to have let you down. In the future, I promise to do better if it happens again. I promise.

By timothydombek

Born and reared in Northern Indiana, I have lived in Arizona since 2007. After working in the broadcasting and financial services fields, since 1992 it has been my joy and delight to serve as an Episcopal priest in churches from Dallas, to South Carolina, and now Phoenix. To know more about me and my family, read the pages within.

2 replies on “Sorry To Have Let You Down, Jonathan”

If it helps, I've occassionally objected to the word "retarded" but not as articulately and appropriately as you outline. (And to be sure, not every time I should have.) This blog will help me object more with better words in the future.

Wonderful article. I hope I can put it to good use. I have attended dinner parties in which people are using the word retarded to describe someone they feel is stupid. It offends me to the point of being quiet and not having anything to do with anyone at the party. I am raising 2 grandchildren that have been diagnosed with Intellectual Functioning Disability which I am told is a better definition than “retarded”. I should speak up and try to educate the individuals instead of just being quiet.

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