My response to a stranger’s ‘short bus’ joke

The mother of a child with Down syndrome responds to a stranger's 'short bus' jokeAbout a month ago, Jeff and I were at Costco during one of our weekly errand days. Somehow, we had successfully maneuvered through I-don’t-know-how-many shoppers who, spotting a free sample station, had stopped mid-aisle with their carts straddling an otherwise viable thoroughfare to savor a glazed meatball or some other freezer-to-table delicacy. Ah, but Costco etiquette is another topic for another day. Today, I’m sharing a lesson in tact.

If you’re a Costco shopper, you know that the cashier or the boxer will pack your purchases into boxes for ease of transportation. Because we transfer most of our purchases to ice chests in the car, we do not require boxes and we make it a point to let our cashier know this every time we visit the store. This particular visit was no exception. The boxer, however, must not have heard the cashier’s directive to skip the boxes because she began packing our purchases into boxes. Here is where the story takes a turn. The cashier repeated that we didn’t need boxes and then turned to us and made what she, apparently, assumed was a lighthearted joke at the expense of the boxer.

“Sometimes we need to tell her things three or four times for them to sink in. She takes the short bus to work.”

The statement was clearly said in jest. The boxer in question appeared to be a perfectly healthy young woman with full intellectual capabilities. Both the boxer and cashier were playful in the situation, attempting to engage Jeff and I in their antics.

If you know anything at all about me, you probably realize the cashier’s mistake: attempting to bring me on board for some spirited taunting at the expense of an entire population of developmentally-delayed people. Sadly, I do have to admit that still today there continue to be people who are amused by distasteful jokes that take aim at individuals with special needs. Unfortunately for that particular Costco cashier, I am not one of them. You see, when I hear someone use the word ‘retarded’ inappropriately or tell a “joke” that belittles those with intellectual disabilities, it’s like everything comes to a screeching stop in my head. Time shifts to slow motion. My adrenaline spikes. I draw in a sharp breath and instinctively pull back. Every fiber of my being withdraws into one giant cringe. The offender, meanwhile, goes on in oblivious conversation while I try to formulate a calm and rational response. Nine times out of ten, the moment passes and I completely miss the opportunity to address the issue.

But not that day.

“We have a daughter with Down syndrome,” I told the cashier. “And just this morning she quite literally took a short bus to school. So excuse me if I am not amused by your little joke.”

I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that what happened next seemed very much like a vacuum came and sucked the life right out of that woman. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to be offensive.”

I’m sure she didn’t. I don’t think most people go around looking for words to inflict pain on others. I can give her that. And that is why I promptly accepted her apology and moved on with (admittedly slightly awkward) small talk.

Here’s the thing: I get tired of holding my tongue when people–friends, even–use the word ‘retarded’ as a slang word for stupid. Most of the time when it happens I’m so busy trying to formulate a response that the moment passes. And so just this once, I didn’t worry about formulating a response and instead just spoke true words that would–ideally–open one woman’s eyes to a prejudicial predisposition she probably wasn’t even aware of. I don’t know if the interaction she had with me that day had lasting effect on her, or if it faded into the monotony of her day. What I do believe, though, is that the next time words like those are on the tip of her tongue, she’ll probably think twice before she speaks them.

I guess it’s like the starfish story. I can’t single-handedly eradicate insensitive language. But I think a little courage goes a long way in spreading awareness about the use of crude jokes and insensitive language.  I hope so, at least.

20 Replies to “My response to a stranger’s ‘short bus’ joke”

  1. You’re response was perfect. I do believe that ALL truth is God’s Truth, and you spoke it with the integrity and grace you always possess, even when inside you may have been raging. Often the truth is hard for us to hear, but truth will always point us in the better direction. Well done!

  2. I get the same reaction with the “r” word for sure, and “special ed” etc – and am still to this day shocked when I hear someone use it (actually heard a lady say it in the check-out line at the grocery store last night.) Don’t get me started on the many ways people like to make a joke using the word “seizure.” Can not believe people talk like that.


  3. Omg…so weird that you posted this today!! Omg!! I’ve been calling around to resale shops in our area to get consignment information to try and earn a bit of money…and the one I called today was one that we’ve shopped at numerous times. As she was giving me her schpeel she said “I am taking some winter items but don’t bring me a winter jacket like the retards did yesterday cause it’s not going to sell” and for a moment I sat and then my response…”you know I have to tell you we shop in your store and you totally had me until you just called someone retarded…and now you’ve lost me!” And I hung up on her. I wish I had waited for a response but I was so angry it was for the best. Like you, I hope that the next time she goes to say that word she remembers…but she lost a customer and new consignment income because of it. Reading your post today was just surreal…just goes to show people really need to think about what they say!!

    1. See now, that’s just not okay. How in the world can someone say those words in 2014 and really think it’s okay?

  4. My experience is on a playground..and this woman next to me says ” he is so cute despite the fact…I must say I didnt miss a beat! I said you looked intelligent despite the fact your obviously not..with mouth open she moved!!

  5. I have a friend who doesn’t make jokes, but she clearly has a problem with people not wanting to use the R word in its literal sense and other words like that that people used to use more. She is traditional and defends the definition of the words. The topic of the R word has come up at least twice, and I always think of you and wonder what you would say to her.

  6. This was not directed at your child. Thicken your skin, realize people are not required to be politically correct because of your situation, move on, and do the best for your kids.

    1. You’re right in that the lady’s callous comment was not directed at my child, Brian. You’re also right in that nobody is required to be politically correct because of my situation (or any situation, for that matter). But just as she is permitted the right to free speech, I am too. And if I choose to be a voice of awareness, it does not necessarily follow that I am stuck in a moment or that I need to “move on”. Whereas she chose to use her voice to belittle and disparage, I chose to use mine to educate someone about being kind and sensitive in a social situation. In my book, I *was* doing the best for my kids. And judging from her embarrassment and immediate apology, it seems to me she realized that she was indeed out of line in making the comment in the first place.

      1. “And if I choose to be a voice of awareness, it does not necessarily follow that I am stuck in a moment or that I need to “move on”. Whereas she chose to use her voice to belittle and disparage, I chose to use mine to educate someone about being kind and sensitive in a social situation.”

        I love this comment reply almost as much as your original post.

    2. don’t you understand that most “politically correct” rules are really about respect for others and not “politics”

  7. Funny, your name is listed as author, but I SWEAR I wrote this! Thanks for sharing! I have the same physical reaction when I hear it.

  8. People talk all the time. I don’t think this lady meant a thing by that comment. I understand it hits closer to home when you feel like it’s aimed at you or even more-so your child. BUT with that said I think sometimes we take things personally that shouldn’t be.
    I’m handicapped but when I was in school my parents never allowed me to think of myself that way. When I was upset about being bullied I was told to be the bigger person and not get upset about it. It worked. It doesn’t bother me at all now.
    After all, when I was in school the ones that rode the short bus were the cheerleaders.

  9. I speak up ( for my children & others that have special needs) whenever I hear someone use ‘retard’. It is an insult that is used to put down special needs people. To me, the word ‘retard’ is the same as calling an African American the N word. Stop putting people down! Get to know them, and you will learn that they are people with feelings and should be treated as equals!!

  10. And so it goes… If the comment made offended you and you felt the need to ‘educate’ her as to how the comment made you feel, why would you then smirk/smile/respond to the ‘cheerleader’ comment? I have Girl Scout troops & All Star Cheer teams and spend my days surrounded by girls of all ages and yes, I spend a good amount of time requesting that comments/jokes from girls of all ages not include the word ‘retard’ or ‘spaz’ or short bus or the many, many other hurtful and politically incorrect words in play today. Words hurt, just as much as a slap or punch and they are most often thrown about when laughter is needed or anger has erupted. So spending time reminding girls of the many hurtful words/phrases is/can be irksome and tiring but it works. The best feeling ever is to here the girls who have been a part of the group for a time correct the new incoming girls with a request not to use hurtful words. The world is a big place, lots of anger, fear and feelings of helplessness everywhere and with hurtful words/phrases another beautiful person is ‘wounded’. So let’s not pick and choose the hurtful words that offend us to speak up about but consciously try to eradicate swearing, cuss words, hurtful words and comments from our everyday conversations. As you attempt to consciously listen to what you are about to say, you will be shocked by the number of ugly things you typically say everyday and laugh at, like the cheerleaders/short bus comment, or the jocks & their special ed. classes or the nerds and their math club or the girls who take shop class or the guys who show up for cheer auditions… As a parent of many, four of whom are in college on full ride cheer scholarships, one who just received his PhD. in Bioengineering, a daughter who can create anything in wood or metals and who met her soon to be husband in a college arts class, I can understand the anger you feel when others make comments that offend you, but perhaps you will now understand how easy it is to offend someone in a big way with just a smirk and a quippy comment…
    Love your blog, we are huge Disney fans and visit yearly.

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