What Happened When A Radio Talk Show Host Used The “R” Word On Air

This post contains graphically offensive racial and ethnic slurs that are not a part of my vocabulary…I am using them to illustrate a point. I am deeply offended by the use of words that disparage or diminish any group of people.

Words…what power they have.

The words we choose to use can open a dialogue or shut one down; they can make a friend or an enemy; they can forge a bond or create a divide.

This morning, local radio station owner Michael St. John was hosting his daily morning talk show when he unintentionally ignited a firestorm by his repeated use of the “R” word. I didn’t hear it myself but one of the parents in my program did, and she called me. She was hurt and outraged. She said, “You are our voice…please speak for us” so I called the station to see if Mr. St. John would speak with me. We talked for nearly an hour and I think both of us came away feeling positive.

On-air, Michael relayed the story of two separate events that happened to him yesterday that involved two people with special needs, one who worked in a grocery store and the other at a fast food restaurant. In both instances, the person with special needs was unable to perform the job duties they had been assigned. In both instances, everyone involved had become frustrated – the people with special needs and the customers they were tasked with serving. Michael explained to me that he was trying to ask a general question…is there some sort of governmental mandate that is requiring businesses to hire people with special needs even if they aren’t qualified for the jobs?

I should mention here that Michael’s radio station is a conservative talk station, which helped me make sense of his “big government interference” theory. I should also mention that there is no governmental mandate to hire people with special needs and that I strongly encourage businesses to give jobs to people with special needs when they can. We have two employees with special needs who make valuable contributions to our organization each day.

In both of these instances, the person with special needs had difficulty making appropriate change for a purchase. Michael wondered why they were put in the position of operating the cash register if they weren’t skilled enough to do so, which is a valid question. Personally, I think the inability of some fast food workers to make change has more to do with our failing school system and our minimum wage than it does with having special needs but that’s a political ball of worms that I don’t care to open in my blog.

People didn’t hear Michael’s question or understand his point because all they heard was his choice of words…retardedretardretarded afflictions…and his repeated use of “them” and “those people.”

When I asked him about his use of these words, he was adamant in his intention that he used these words to describe the diagnosis of the person and did not mean to cast aspersions on them. And I was stunned to hear that Michael actually has a step-daughter with an intellectual disability. Turns out, Michael is not offended by the “R” word as a parent and did not seem to be aware that its use is no longer deemed appropriate.

I wondered how a person – especially one who has a family member with a disability – could be so oblivious to the fact that the “R” word is no longer acceptable but I reminded myself that he lives in a small community in North Alabama, which could explain a lot. Rednecks can be slow to catch onto trends.

Ouch…that stings because I, too am a redneck from North Alabama.

When I tried to explain to him that the “R” word is inflammatory and negative, he was a bit defensive in his stance that you can’t eliminate a word from the dictionary just because some people find it offensive.

Here is one thing Michael said to me (paraphrased):

People with retarded afflictions shouldn’t be put in jobs that don’t match their skill set.

So I asked him to substitute other offensive words in this sentence and see if he thought it would be acceptable to say them live on the radio, like this:

Faggots/niggers/chinks/kikes/dagos/wet backs/rag heads/crackers shouldn’t be put in jobs that don’t match their skill set.

I think a “lightbulb” went off for Michael.

The surprising thing was that the longer we talked, the more I liked Michael, even though I was primed to take his head off. He truly didn’t intend to offend people with special needs or their families. He truly intended to simply ask what he thinks is a valid question. He is truly grateful for the job his step-daughter has and knows that she takes pride in having a job she can do independently and well. He truly wants other people with special needs to have that same employment experience- he doesn’t want them to be placed in jobs that are inappropriate for them because he truly hated to see two people with special needs becoming frustrated when they were unable to be successful in their assigned tasks.

Michael said to me, “When a door slams in your face, a window will open and I think this happened today so that you and I would have this conversation.” He’s promised to issue an apology/clarification on air tomorrow and has invited me to be his guest on his show in September, an invitation I’m happy to accept.

I may not agree with his politics or enjoy conservative talk radio but he’s not a bad guy…he just made very poor word choices. I do the same thing every day when I drop “F” bombs around. There are certainly people who tune me out or become outraged with me because I say “fuck,” even if they agree with my message. So a lightbulb went off for me, too.

Although I’m sure I will continue to drop “F” bombs when I believe they are appropriate and while “fuck” may be offensive to some people, it is an adjective or a verb, not a noun used to disparage someone.

Which brings me back around to words and their power. We have advocacy groups telling us every day that certain words aren’t acceptable, from the NAACP to the LGBTQ. So I am adding my voice to the chorus of voices that are trying to tell our society that we are all more alike than we are different…and not just in matters of race, ethnicity or sexual preference.

It’s not okay to call anyone names, people.

People with special needs are people…they are not just a diagnosis or a stereotype. They are people with feelings and they deserve to be respected, by us and by our words.

We All Have Special Needs

I am at a convention called BlogHer. There are 4,000 bloggers here with me. I feel very small and I have so much to learn.

One of this morning’s speakers talked about how connecting with a community of bloggers and with her own readers helped her come to terms with her son’s autism diagnosis. Another keynote speaker, Jenny Lawson – The Bloggess and author of the book Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, spoke about the response she received when she shared with them that she has a mental health diagnosis. Her readers responded with thousands of comments that shared the refrain, “I thought I was alone.” She has emails from people who told her they were on the verge of suicide and read her blog post, and the comments left by the community of people who also have a mental health diagnosis, and decided not to end their lives.

This huge conference has attracted speakers, vendors, panelists and writers of every variety. The event organizers had their pick of keynote speakers, as this conference has brought together women from around the world who blog about an array of subjects.

I wondered, as I listened, if they intentionally chose women who have had experiences with “disability.”

Abbey & me at NRG Dance Project in Atlanta last year

Me & Abbey at NRG Dance Project in Atlanta last year

And then I remembered Abbey’s words to me and realized it wasn’t a coincidence that these two keynote speakers would reference issues that millions of people live with.

Abbey is 14 now but when she was 12, she said the most impactful thing that anyone has ever said to me in my life. Abbey has cerebral palsy and knew about my son, Austin’s, struggle with addiction.

Any time he was away at an alternative school or residential treatment program, she asked for updates on his progress. And so while he was in Atlanta, at what would turn out to be his final treatment program, as he is well into his second year of sobriety, Abbey asked me how he was doing.

I told her that he was doing great and that we thought he might finally be ready for real recovery.

She said:

“I’m so excited!!! I’ve been thinking about Austin a lot lately and thinking about him has made me realize something.”

I listened, and she continued:

“Miss Debra, we all have special needs … and we all have two special needs in common:
We all have the need to be loved, and we all have the need to be accepted.

And then she said, “Some people’s special needs are on the outside, like mine. And some people’s special needs are on the inside, like Austin’s.”

Ashley, Abbey & Austin in 2011

Ashley, Abbey & Austin in 2011

I took such comfort from these words, spoken to me by a 12-year-old girl who will never be able to tie her own shoes or walk without difficulty.

It was not a coincidence that two of this morning’s speakers have been affected by a diagnosis. Because Abbey was right – everyone has special needs of one sort or another. Some people’s are just easier to recognize than others.

I’m going to soak up everything I can from this conference … so I can be a better writer and a better advocate for the people with special needs that I know and love.

More importantly, I hope to learn how to use this blog platform as a springboard for spreading Abbey’s message of acceptance, of tolerance, of recognizing that we are all more alike than we are different.

The Secret about Parents of Kids with Special Needs


Alisa and Anna Chilton

Alisa and Anna

I follow a lot of blogs. One of my favorites is Special Needs Mom, by a gifted writer named Suzanne Perryman. She posted an entry on April 14, 2013, that pops back up in newsfeeds occassionally and during the past week, I’ve noticed that several of the moms of students in my program have reposted it. Click here to read the post.

As I re-read this post, I realized that I know a secret about parents of kids with special needs, a secret they won’t tell you because they probably don’t even realize it …

The secret is that parents whose kids have special needs are brave.

What else do you call a person who has faced their worst fear and emerged changed for the better? In the past seven years, I’ve met hundreds of parents and I’ve only encountered one who was bitter, a young mom who’s daughter has cerebral palsy and who told me that her daughter was too disabled … more disabled than any other child and couldn’t possibly be part of my program. The rest of the parents I’ve met are … well, they are just brave. And brave people rarely tout their bravery.

They didn’t start out that way.

They started out on the road to parenthood just like I did … with a vision that did not include hospitals, therapists, resource classrooms. They were a couple with a shared dream of creating that perfect family that we all want. Maybe they imagined their child would be a great athlete or a great artist or a great engineer. While they were expecting, they imagined all those life events their child would experience … playdates, school plays, college, a wedding. For some of them, that imagining came to a halt during pregnancy, for others the end of the dreams didn’t come until later.

But at some point, life said to the parents I know:

“Sorry, you don’t get that dream. You better get busy trying to imagine a different one.”

And so that’s what they did.


Connor and Brian Furber

Connor and Brian


They’ve taken the disappointment, the fear, the anger that they must have felt and have turned the other cheek. They refuse to let anything negative shape the rest of their lives or cast a shadow on the lives their children will have. They were dealt a blow that must have laid them flat on their backs, but they’ve gotten back up again, put a smile back on their faces and they’ve re-imagined the future without rancor and without regret.

There must be times when the heartbreak returns. Maybe a girlfriend tells them about her daughter, who made the cheerleading squad or maybe their buddy tells them about teaching his son to drive – and there it is … that pain, that regret, that feeling of, “Yeah, that’s what I thought I’d be doing.”

I think bravery is doing something, even when you don’t want to or are afraid and never allowing yourself to become resentful about it. Which is exactly what the parents I know do.

I’ve experienced a miniscule taste of what it might be like. Austin began to lose touch with his classmates around 9th grade and for the rest of his high school years, we were caught up in the drama of drug addiction. A few weeks ago, I ran into the mom of one of his kindergarten classmates and was startled when she told me that her daughter had graduated from college back in May.

“Wait a minute,” I thought to myself. “If Austin hadn’t spent six years using drugs, he’d be graduating from college now?” For a brief time, I let myself think about all that we missed … prom, high school graduation, fraternities and campus visits.

And as I thought about those lost dreams I’d had for Austin, I wondered if I would have turned out like that one parent I met who was bitter that her child had cerebral palsy or if I would have been brave enough to embrace an unexpected and uninvited path.

Once I said to a parent, “I don’t know how you do it,” not realizing that this would be offensive to her. Parenting her child was not some onerous task, some hardship she had to endure … parenting her child was a gift in life.

Was she like that to start with, before she knew her child would have a disability?

Or did having a child with a disability turn her into a resilient and brave woman who could accept that she was going to have to travel a road she never asked to travel?


Ben, Carly and Gina Bender

Ben, Carly and Gina


Some of the bravest parents I’ve met are ones whose adult children have disabilities … those parents who insisted on bringing their children home from the hospital back in the days when doctors told them not to.

One father told me that when his son was born, in 1960, the doctor said,

“Put him in an institution. You’ll visit him once a week at first, then every six weeks and before you know it, you’ll never even remember you had him.”

Those parents brought their children home when there were no resources, no therapists or early interventions, when their children were not even allowed to go to school. I know so many parents who have retired and still have their children living at home and imagine that they worry every single day about what will happen if their children outlive them. But that doesn’t stop them from fully embracing the path life placed them on, despite what they might have imagined one day so long ago.

All I know to say is … that’s what bravery looks like.

The next time you see a parent of child who has special needs, remember this secret they will never tell you … when you see them in the grocery store or at your school or at your church …

You are in the presence of a person who is truly brave.

And the next time you are disappointed in something or life hands you an unexpected twist, and take inspiration from their bravery.

Bullies Aren’t Welcome

My friend, Abbey is 12-years-old, in 7th grade and has cerebral palsy. I wrote about Abbey a few posts back when I was writing about labels and why we have to attach them to children with special needs. As Abbey so astutely pointed out to me, everyone has special needs of one sort or another – some people’s are just more obvious at first glance than other people’s are. But recently, Abbey shared with me what it’s like to be bullied because of her disability and I found her words to be incredibly powerful – and they made me incredibly angry. This video clip will show you, in her own words, some of the things Abbey has to endure. Click on the image left to watch!

I’m sure watching this video will make your blood boil and your heart break, imagining what Abbey has to put up with, imagining her coming home from school to cry. I hope it will also make you admire Abbey for her courage and self-confidence because she is able to let most of these bullies roll off her back. Her mother has taught her that she is so much more than her diagnosis and luckily, she has many other kids and adults who recognize her bravery and integrity. Abbey is able to advocate for herself in many ways, as she is articulate and one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever met – of any age!

But what happens to those kids who aren’t able to stand up for themselves, like Abbey is? What about those kids who can’t communicate well enough to defend themselves? Or besides children with special needs, what about those kids who are routinely bullied because of how they dress, how they look, how well they do or don’t do in school, their sexual orientation, their religious beliefs? How did it become so commonplace for our children to have to endure mistreatment and what can we do to stop it?

I wonder if we have become such a litigious society that too many people are afraid to stand up for victims of bullying because they are afraid of legal implications if they do. Or if we have become so immune to the effects of bullying because there are so many ways a child – or an adult – can be bullied. There’s cyber bullying, workplace bullying, schoolyard bullying. Are we becoming so cowardly that we are allowing the bullies to win? Are kids being told they can’t stand up for themselves against bullies because our schools have a zero tolerance policy for violence so that a student can’t even physically defend themselves?


To me, bullies are ignorant, plain and simple. They are ignorant about a lot of things, like people’s differences, they obviously aren’t tolerant and clearly don’t have any confidence in themselves. But I think the biggest thing they are ignorant of is their own feelings and emotions. If a school yard bully or an office bully had the emotional maturity to be cognizant of how their words and actions feel, they wouldn’t do such cruel and hurtful things. How to go about educating these ignorant bullies is where the problem lies.

Children who bully other children are perhaps mistreated at home. Maybe they don’t have loving adults in their lives who teach them right from wrong. Maybe they aren’t being raised with any sort of spiritual grounding, any sort of religion that teaches them about loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. To a certain extent, children can’t be held completely accountable for their actions. Which is where we, as a society, have to step in and set standards of acceptable behavior to one another for children to emulate.

Abbey and I spent an afternoon together about a year ago. I picked her up at her house and took her to a children’s nail salon, where she got a manicure, pedicure and a haircut, then we went to the mall where she wanted to “Build A Bear” and ended our day with lunch at a fun-themed restaurant. I enjoyed every minute with Abbey, loved her hilarious running commentary on everything we were doing – that kid has quite a sense of humor! But by the third stop on our trip, my back was hurting and my arms were starting to ache. Because each stop along the way involved getting the wheelchair out of the back of the car, lifting Abbey from her seat (and she weighed about 60 pounds at the time), getting her situated in the chair and then repeating these actions when we got back into the car. I suddenly understood why so many of the parents of the kids in my programs wore back support bands, why so many of them had back problems.

When we were at the mall, it suddenly dawned on me that whoever thinks that stores in malls are wheelchair accessible is crazy because we bumped into every end wrack and display we came across. The aisles were not wide enough to accommodate even a child’s wheelchair. Several people, including children, spoke to us in the bear store, admiring the kitten Abbey created and greeting us warmly as we passed. But when we made our final stop at the restaurant and were waiting in line to be seated, a big, ugly, wretched looking woman began to stare at us- in disgust. A grown woman, who, I might add, was ill-groomed, smelled bad and looked even worse (okay, I might be exaggerating but wait until you hear the rest of the story!), stared down at Abbey in her wheelchair, not saying a word. Abbey smiled up at her, held out her kitten and said, “Would you like to see the kitten I just made?” The woman looked Abbey straight in the eyes….and turned her back on us.

The hostess at the restaurant and the other patrons waiting in line saw this and all of them began to chime in to Abbey, exclaiming over how cute her kitten was and what a good job she did in creating it. The hostess even skipped over the hideous woman to seat others behind her first. But none of that prevented Abbey from being completely aware of what had just happened – she had been judged and rejected by an adult, a grown woman who certainly should have known better. What’cha want to bet that that wicked witch raised a bully or two?

As a parent, I certainly don’t want to be held responsible for every mistake my children might make. But I do feel I should be responsible for giving them the moral grounding to help them develop their own moral compass and the ability to feel compassion for others. As a society, we should all feel a responsibility to make up for cruelty and bullying when we see it happening, like the others did in the restaurant line. It can’t take away the hurt from someone being bullied, but at least we can show them that everyone in the world doesn’t stink.

And it wouldn’t hurt if every parent had to spend an afternoon lugging a wheelchair or walker everywhere they go, seeing what it’s like to have a child with special needs who is completely dependent on others for their mobility. Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and we’re more likely to understand what their life is like on a daily basis. Why don’t we all band together, like the people in the restaurant line, and acknowledge when we see someone being bullied – ignore the bully and extend compassion to the bullied? Why can’t we all show those who bully that they aren’t welcome here, in our schools, in our businesses, in our homes? Bullies do what they do because they are ignorant and because they can get away with it. The next time you see someone doing something cruel to another person, if you don’t want to step in and get actively involved, at least turn your back to the bully and let them know that bullies aren’t welcome around here.

Dreaming With Your Feet

EliannaThe title of this blog came from a five-year-old girl with cerebral palsy. Elianna was one of the first studentsin my program of visual and performing arts education for people with special needs. After only a few lessons, Elianna told me that she wants to be a ballerina when she grows up. Elianna cannot walk, but with the assistance of her volunteer, she can dance. When I asked her why she likes dance so much, she said, “Because dancing is beautiful…its like dreaming with your feet.”

In October 2008, we launched our first class of Dance Your Dreams!, our initial Johnny Stallings Arts Program class that was made up of 9 little girls and 1 boy who ranged in age from 4 to 12 and who had either Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism or a couple of other developmental disabilities. We had not met all of the children before the first class met and didn’t quite know what to expect our students to be like, as Hayley Henderson, Artistic Director for the programs, and I had no experience with children who lived with such difficult challenges. We were nervous and unsure of ourselves, feeling an intense fear that we might unwittingly do something wrong that might physically hurt the children. This was, after all, a dance class we were offering, and some of the children were immobile, several were visually or hearing impaired and most of them had language delays that made communication with them difficult. So with a great deal of trepidation mixed with hearts full of excitement, we waited at the front door of Merrimack Hall for the students to arrive for their first class.

We had set up a registration table right inside the front door, and the first child through the door was Elianna, a darling pixie of a girl with a precious bob haircut and adorable wire-rimmed glasses. She barreled through the door in her walker, necessary because her legs are basically immobile due to cerebral palsy, charging full speed ahead to our table. Before we could say, “Hello” to her, she announced, “Hi! My name is Elianna.  E-L-I-A-N-N-A. I’m five and a half years old and I’m here to dance.”

Hayley and I locked eyes and shared a look that said, “This little girl is something else, and this isn’t scary – it’s going to be blast!” As we took down her registration information from her dad, Elianna zoomed passed the table, asking which way to go for her dance class. A volunteer pointed her to the elevator, where she pushed the button and started to enter, but her walker got hung up on the threshold. Before anyone could get to her to offer their assistance, I watched her lift up her walker, place it over the threshold and literally lift her little body up and over that barrier. Absolutely nothing was going to stop her from getting on that elevator and heading up to her dance class. And at that moment, watching that sort of bravery and determination from a child so young, my heart was stolen, and I was completely in love.

At the end of the first class, Elianna asked her volunteer to lean down so she could whisper in her ear, “I’ve had a really good time. But next time I come here, I could really use some glitter and a crown.” Of course, I went straight to Party City and bought glittery princess crowns for all the little girls and a towering king’s crown for our little boy.
After a few weeks of class, Elianna’s father asked her why she liked to dance so much. Remember, this is a child who cannot walk but loves to dance. Her answer was, “I like dance because it’s beautiful. It’s like dreaming with your feet.” My heart has belonged to Elianna and all of our other students every day for the past four years. And she’s right – that’s just what dancing is, whether you can walk or not, whether you have rhythm or not, whether you ballroom dance, tap dance or just groove out to your favorite tunes. The next time you are having a bad day, feeling down or simply need a good pick-me-up, turn on some music and dream with your feet!