The title of this piece makes it seem like a satire, but I promise it’s not.
I grew up a ’90s kid. I’m a sucker for old school ’90s shows, especially produced by Nickelodeon. (I’m convinced the greatest kids’ show ever is The Adventures of Pete & Pete.) I love rocking the 90’s Pandora station.
Luckily for me, our whole culture is experiencing ’90s nostalgia. I’ve noticed local radio stations playing more ’90s music. One station has a Friday Night ’90s block, which my wife and I listen to in the car on date nights. (We’re going to embarrass our kids so much…)
It’s also common to find people in their late 30’s wearing t-shirts referencing ’90s pop culture. Shirts like this one:
This shirt celebrates the ’90s Nicktoons era, which debuted on August 11th, 1991. The shirt is magical. You’ve got Tommy and Chuckie from Rugrats, Ren and Stimpy, Rocko. Reptar, of course. You also have Nigel Thornberry from The Wild Thornberrys, which came a little after my time.
I always like to point out that the only classic Nicktoon not represented on this shirt is Doug. Why? My guess is because Nickelodeon sold the show to Disney, so they no longer own the rights. Sad. I related to the character of Doug the most. But, I digress. My point is, I love wearing this shirt, especially on Saturdays, when I’m having a relaxed day.
I also have a disability called cerebral palsy.
This means when I walk, I’m a little unbalanced. If I have to walk long distances, I drive a mobilized scooter. I have a slight speech impediment. (And I’m less intelligible if I’m nervous and talking to someone for the first time.)
So, what does my disability and love of the ’90s have in common? Here’s where they cross paths…
Sometimes when I encounter strangers in public, they assume my physical disability also means I have a cognitive delay. It could be a waiter at a restaurant, an employee at a retail store, a bank manager, or a random person in line.
To be fair, this doesn’t always happen. I’d say it’s not even the norm. But a good sign it’s about to happen is if they refuse to talk directly to me. I might ask them a question, and they’ll answer the person I’m with instead of me. If they do speak to me, it might be in a tone you’d take with a child. They talk in a condescending way, overemphasizing every word. (My friends and I sometimes refer to this as the “baby talk voice.”)
Now, I haven’t crunched the numbers, but I feel like it happens more when I wear my Nicktoons shirt.
I’m not mad at people when they do this, but I find the correlation interesting.
I remember one reaction when my wife and I were paying for something at a checkout counter. As the woman was checking us out, she looked at my shirt and smiled real big.
“Ohhh… You like watching cartoons?!” she asked, as if she was talking to a 5-year-old.
I opened my mouth to try to explain the context of the shirt, but I was already rattled by the question. I had trouble getting the words out. All I managed to squeak out was a “Yeah,” before her attention turned back to ringing us up.
When we got in the car, my wife and I chuckled.
“I guess she didn’t quite get the shirt,” she said.
It’s true. Not everyone is going to have a knowledge of old-school ’90s shows. Can’t blame them for that.
But if people see a 37-year-old non-disabled adult wearing a fun cartoon shirt, they probably won’t think much of it. They might think it’s an odd choice, but they won’t treat that person differently. But when a disabled person wears the shirt, it may reinforce a false perception already there.
There are also times when people totally get the shirt. They’ll pass me by and smile a nostalgic smile. “Cool shirt, man,” they’ll say. I’ve even crossed paths with people wearing the same style shirt, and we’ll nod to each other in solidarity.
A good rule to live by.
I want to reiterate that I’m not mad when people use the baby talk voice on me. They are trying to make a connection with me, even if it’s misguided. The irony is when this happens, I get flustered. Then my reaction reinforces their perception of me!
Here’s a good general rule: When you meet someone with a disability, don’t assume they are operating at a lower cognitive level. (Also, don’t assume a speech impediment means they are operating at a lower cognitive level. Give them time to get the words out.) Talk to them the way you’d talk to any adult.
It’s true — some people with physical disabilities also have cognitive delays. If that’s the case, you can always meet them at the appropriate level as the conversation continues.
I still like pulling out my comfy ’90s Nicktoons t-shirt from the closet (it’s right next to my Lion King shirt). So if you see me wearing it at the mall on a Saturday — because where else would a ’90s kid be on a Saturday?— don’t worry.
I’m just your average 37-year-old giving in to nostalgia!