— -- (Editor's Note: Amy Julia Becker is the author of Small Talk: Learning From My Children About What Matters Most. She is the mother of three children).
As the mother of an 8-year old with Down syndrome, I sometimes get annoyed by headlines trumpeting the everyday accomplishments of kids with intellectual disabilities. Heart warming stories of the teenager with Down syndrome who shot a three-pointer for the basketball team, or ran the field for a touchdown, or was voted Homecoming King or Queen sometimes feel like distractions from the prejudice people with intellectual disabilities face in our schools and in our society at large. Moreover, for every child who receives the applause of friends and family (and the wider world of the internet), countless others do not achieve something that commends praise. I want to uphold the intrinsic value of all the kids with intellectual disabilities, especially the ones who don’t make the headlines.
Yet I found myself cheering for Hema Ramaswamy, a 23-year old woman with Down syndrome who recently performed her coming-of-age ceremony, which involved two hours of dancing and nearly a decade of practice.
And I couldn’t help but swell with pride and a bit of wonder when our own daughter, Penny, competed in her school’s spelling bee last week.
I probably shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Penny was one of four kids from her third grade class to advance to the all-school spelling bee. Penny has always loved words. As a preschooler in speech therapy, she would ask us to give her big words to say out loud. I remember her little voice repeating back to me words like onomatopoeia, ridiculous, symphony, brontosaurus, ontological. Then, once she could read, it became our habit during long car rides — the twice annual visits to the ear doctor, the eye doctor, the physiatrist — to give each other words to spell. Easy words came first — bed, hat, tin, cap. And then “medium words” like mailbox, evergreen, point, basket. Finally, “medium-hard” words that kept us giggling with the complicated letters she would mix up from the back seat: hospital, telephone, beautiful.
Still, when she buried her face in my lap with the thrilling news that she would be in the school spelling bee, I almost cried with surprise and pride and excitement for her. She practiced every night. Say the word, spell the word, say the word. Think about it first. Say it slowly. Have fun. She lay on the couch with the list of practice words. Peculiar, fluoroscope, forewarn, generous.
Ten kids lined up in their chairs in the front of the auditorium. Penny, legs dangling, smaller than anyone else, sat up straight with a big smile. She spotted me and waved. The first round consisted of three words. She spelled the first one wrong: rarely, with two l’s. She spelled the second one wrong: surprise, without the second r. But she got her final word right. She marched with confidence to the microphone. She said the word, spelled the word, said the word. Possible. P-O-S-S-I-B-L-E. Possible.
Penny sat down in the audience after that round along with three of her peers, and she cheered for the kids who advanced to the second round and then to the final. As I thought about her accomplishment and the excitement of watching her up there, I realized that at least part of the reason I cheered a little louder for her (other than being her mom, of course) was because I knew it took even more work for her to get there than the other kids. It took more hours of paging through books and practicing words out loud and reading and reading and reading.