There was a defining moment in my childhood where I was told that my big brother wasn’t like me. My parents, I don’t think had ever any plan to sit us down and tell us that our brother was ‘special’ or ‘different’… until they had no choice but to.
1980’s Ireland, wasn’t a great place to be ‘different’, nor was it a place where ability was seen in disability.
It were the neighbourhood kids who thought me my brother was ‘different’. It was my older brother who showed me that our brother was indeed different, as he stood, his fists clenched in rage screaming at the kids to call our brother ‘handicapped’ one more time. On many occasion, he dared them to.
My parents would scold my brother for his temper and willingness to fight. Us younger kids, had no real understanding of the word ‘handicapped’ and why it was such an insult to our eldest brother.
It was only when I was eight years old that I became more aware of my brother, this was also the same time my mother gave birth to my sixth and final sibling, baby L. There was talk of the baby…exciting talk amongst us,(the siblings) but my parents would whisper and often looked worried. As a mother of a child who has a rare genetic syndrome, it is only now, I understand their worry over each and every pregnancy after their first beautiful boy was born.
It would have been the summer I turned 9, that I knew, without any doubt that my brother was ‘different’. We were playing a game of ‘rounders’ with a few neighbourhood kids. My brother came up to bat, while my sister showed him how to hold the tennis racket (a bat was a luxury , a racket wasn’t!)We all waited patiently while ‘O’ took some practise shots. He was good. He was damn good. The other team began to spread out in the hopes of catching his ball. My sister whispered into his ear just before the opposing team threw the ball. ‘O’ just tapped the ball, forcing the other team to run quickly back in. We roared at ‘O’ to run, but in our haste of showing him the ‘trick’ to batting none of us reminded him he needed to run.
I guess the screaming was too much for him. He froze. He stood blinking with his mouth open..it was at this moment some neighbourhood kids were passing on their bikes and took it upon themselves to roar ‘O is a handicap’.
O had five siblings on that pitch and roughly 10 neighbourhood kids …we all fell silent. I watched my older brother and sister, their jaws tight, they began to give chase to the bikes. Others quickly followed, while us younger ones told ‘O’ to never mind them. O was mad. He repeated over and over that he was not a handicap. He picked up the ball, watching the bikes(which were now circling the pitch) he took aim and with one mighty whack he hit one lad off his bike.
“Now who’s the handicap?” my sister, barley a year older than me roared.We all ran towards the group of kids who were now surrounded by my eldest siblings and a few neighbourhood kids. We let O pass us all, he stood over the ‘ring leader’ of that little ‘gang’. “I’m not handicap” O shouted. We all cheered.
In that moment, I looked at my siblings, at how fiercely protective they were (and are !) of our brother. I watched the other kids we were playing with applaud our brother and pat him on his back ..”Good man O” …it was in that moment I knew my brother was different. I had never seen a group of kids come together to fight one child’s bullies.
What is different about O, I had asked my father later that night. “Nothing Mac, kids call him names because they don’t know any better. I bet they’ll stop that now after today!” he smiled. “But, but dad, why, why are they calling him… handicapped?” I forced that ugly word out of my mouth. My dad sighed. “O has Down Syndrome, that is what makes him different. To have a handicap is to be missing part of your body for example, like me needing a walking stick, O has an extra piece in his body! He got more than you or I and that Mac’keen, that is what makes him special” my father smiled as I tried to understand. “ So why call him that then?” I asked more freely as my father grabbed his stick. “Ignorance Mac’keen. Their parents don’t know their kids are doing that. They are just kids. One day they will have kids of their own and see what they said to our O, was cruel and mean and very untrue” my dad tossed my hair. “OK?” he asked. “ So am I not special?” I titled my head wondering had I anything ‘extra’ like O. “Of course you are!” my dad laughed. “You’re my walking, talking living doll” he kissed my cheek as I helped him with his stick.
“So O, dad is a handicap” I informed the whole dinner table later that night…everyone laughed. My mother added “Dad has a handicap Geraldine…no one is a handicap”
There and then I learned the word ‘handicapped’ can be just as hurtful as the ‘R’ word and it is thanks to my brother O, that I was able to handle a ‘man’ who called my son a ‘R’ many , many years later.
Thank you my big bro x