The Journey, Fourth Overlook: Human

“Well, I guess you could call him a vegetable. I called him Oliver, my brother. You would have loved him.” (POTP, p. 9)

De Vinck was teaching English with his class about to study Helen Keller. In an attempt to allow his students to appreciate the reality of Keller’s situation, he offered a glimpse into his world; he told them about Oliver. He described how they fed and bathed him, how Oliver remained in the same location his entire life and didn’t speak. Then a boy in the front row said, “Oh, Mr. De Vinck. You mean he was a vegetable.”

A vegetable.

I’d like to meet the person who decided it was appropriate to refer to a human being as a vegetable and… well, I don’t know what I’d do, but I don’t like it one bit. Andy Taylor would be proud of my restraint.

Yesterday, I wrote an entire post about this issue and didn’t feel good about it. I had Jeni read it and we talked for a long time. I realized that what Jeni and I were doing was my goal for you as well; to be forced to think, hopefully talk about it, and consider the implications of the content. I don’t think my original post would have done that, so I offer this in its place.

The bottom line, minus the linguistic trimmings, is I believe dehumanizing titles for people are wrong, and ugly.

Vegetable. Mongoloid. Retard.

I remember the first time I heard the word mongoloid. We were in North Carolina and a sympathetic friend acknowledged how hard it must be having a “mongoloid child.” He could have just as easily said, “a shraflinked glibsnoob” and I would have had the same response, cluelessness. Since I’d only been aware of Cerebral Palsy for about 2 weeks, I figured he knew something I didn’t, but it still felt weird. I call him Caedmon, my son. You’re going to love him.

It wasn’t until later, when another friend told me that mongoloid was an archaic term for someone with Down’s Syndrome, that I was bothered by the remark. Was I bothered because he dehumanized my son, or was I bothered that he had the audacity to confuse my son for a child with Down’s Syndrome. I sure hope it was the first. Either way, I just wanted to talk about Caedmon, my son, not Caedmon the mongoloid.

Don’t we all want to be known in human terms, in relation to the people we love: father, sister, mother, son, friend, uncle, or Nana. We are people, not diagnosis.

The Declaration of Independence states,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

When we look beyond someone, and refer to them with dehumanizing terms, we deny this self-evident truth. Notice it doesn’t say, that all men are created the same, just that they’re equal. To devalue any of them with some lazy, distancing term is to strip them of their God-given dignity. As soon as I tag someone with one of those words, I place myself in a position of superiority. I’m normal, you’re retarded.

It all goes back to what we view as “normal,” and what value we place on being considered such. Within any given school you will find pockets of people who believe themselves to be normal. Jocks, geeks, preps, goths, emos, D&D kids, etc. Each person looks around at the kids sitting at their lunch table and essentially sees themselves. When they look across the room, at the kids in the varsity jackets eating all the cheerleaders ignored chicken nuggets, they roll their eyes, pass their judgement, shake their heads, and say, “jocks.” Because normal to them is tight jeans, dark hair, and listening to “Death Cab for Cutie,” they assume the position of the socially superior and dehumanize anyone else.

In a more unpleasant example. When we walk into Publix and see all kinds of mirrors walking around, rockin’ collared shirts, having brief conversations about Tiger, Charl, and Rory, and grabbing the 2 for $5 cases of Pepsi. Then we notice someone who looks different. They dress similarly but somethings awry. After a second glance you realize the truth, they have Down’s Syndrome. You look in their cart, at their cases of Pepsi, and think, “how cute, he’s shopping all by himself.” It’s no different from the jock giving the quick nod and “Wassup?” to the passing trumpet player.

Granted, you might be reading this blog and believe that I’ve over-simplified these encounters, and you’re probably right. There’s plenty of folks out there who get it and don’t minimize people to the sum of their abilities. But, because it’s not universally true, this still needs to be said.

It’s one thing to be aware that someone is autistic and use that knowledge to be a better friend. It’s true after all. But, it’s another thing altogether to identify him as such. Those may sound like two contradictory statements, but they aren’t contradictory ideas. We are more than our diagnosis, we are human beings created equally, and we have names.

I want a world of “Us” not a world of “Us” and “Them.” As soon as we rob a person of their humanity by reducing them to a clinical identification, we become “us” and they become “them.” We’ve determined our normal and drawn a line at their feet… abnormal.

I hope this helps clarify my heart. Imagine walking into a room full of people with Down’s Syndrome, every person. As soon as you cross the threshold, you’re abnormal. You’re on the outside. You’re different. And everyone knows it. Steve, the person who invited you, walks over and introduces you to his friends. “This is Jason, he’s got NS*.” His friends look at you sympathetically and say to him, “It’s cool that you have a friend with NS Steve, you’re such a caring guy.” You aren’t a human, you’re a term. A Mongoloid. A Vegetable.

Please don’t be like the kids in De Vinck’s English class. Learn from Christopher’s experience with Oliver… you would have loved him. Don’t let a wheelchair become a barrier. Reject the idea that Down’s Syndrome is abnormal. Remember that the little autistic boy is a human first and foremost. We have a creator and He made us equal.

Here we sit, gazing out at the fourth overlook, and I want to show you what I see…

Granted, these are flowers, but they illustrate my heart. Caedmon’s in there, probably in the blue line. He loves blue. Stacey’s in there, no doubt in orange. Mimi’s in the purple section. I’m a little south of the yellow, where the flourescent tulips grow. This is a picture of millions of individuals yet one kind. Unique yet the same. Diverse yet uniform. And not one vegetable.


* NS is short hand for “Normal’s Syndrome,” It was named, in 1943, after Arthur McKenzie Normal was identified as the first person with the unmistakable symptoms. The classic presentation is a delusional belief that only people similar to you are socially acceptable. People suffering from NS will develop a crick in their neck from looking down their noses at others and will often see their cranium enlarged. The only known cure for NS is a swift kick in the pants.


  1. AMEN!! Great post. As someone who works in the healthcare field, I recognise that labels are often not helpful. There is unfortunately a real cutlrue in this environment that is really hard to break. I chip away at it day by day.
    Thank you for this thought provoking post.

    From a sister, partner, daughter, lover and one who has been labeled!

    1. G-Day! and thanks for joining the discussion. I’d like to encourage you to read the first few posts of “The Journey” and follow along for the rest of the way. I’m curious, how did you find the blog?

      1. I have been following along. I came across your blog a while ago via one of the music therapy blogs I read, I can’t remember which one – may have been MTI in ATL. I have been reading it for a while and I really enjoy your perspective on things. Cheers

  2. Your words are very true Ryan, the hurtful stereotypes labels that people have to endure just show ignorance on the part of people who use them. Words can and do hurt.

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