Gray Matters — The education of Shaquille O'Neal
Belfast — Over the years I have written about my son Shane on several occasions, usually sharing with all of you some of the interesting comments he makes or about our experiences together as mother and son.
On a few occasions, I have talked about the rare genetic syndrome he has lived with all of his life called ectodermal dysplasia. It largely means Shane lacks adequate sweat glands. This syndrome also means his hair appears very light and sparse, his finger and toenails are often brittle, his skin is quite dry and his teeth grow in slowly, if at all. The ones that have erupted have a pointy, peg-shaped appearance.
According to the National Foundation for Ectodermal Dysplasia, there are more than 150 types of this kind of condition, which occurs in as many as seven in every 10,000 births.
For those of you who have never heard of ectodermal dysplasia before, you are not alone. I didn't have a clue about it until my son was diagnosed with it when he was 15 months old.
But once that diagnosis becomes known to you, it changes your life. Also, it becomes easy to spot another person who lives with the same condition.
That is exactly what happened Tuesday afternoon, when I was browsing headlines and spotted a photo of a 23-year-old man from the Detriot, Mich., area named Jahmel Binion who had features very similar to Shane's. Initially, I thought, "Wow, here's someone who knows what Shane experiences each day."
But the next thing I noticed left me infuriated.
Beside a selfie that Jahmel posted on Instagram was another image of basketball standout Shaquille O'Neal. I guess Shaq, who is in a position to be a role model to young people, thought it would be funny to post his own photo next to Jahmel's, in which he was obviously mocking Jahmel's appearance. Underneath this less-than-classy attempt at tasteless humor was a caption simply stating, "Smile today."
To make matters worse, the schoolyard antics didn't stop there — former University of Michigan athlete Trey Burke and rapper Waka Flocka Flame added their insulting two cents as well.
I will admit it. The first thing I wanted to do more than anything was to give old Shaquille O'Neal a nice punch in the mouth, right along with his pals (awful I know, but I think it's that whole mother bear thing. The lesson? Don't poke the mama bear).
And apparently I wasn't the only mama (or papa) bear he figuratively poked through those actions, as thousands of parents, siblings and loved ones of people with all kinds of disabilities rushed to social media to express their disgust and outrage.
But then, I saw how Jahmel handled the situation, and I was inspired.
Instead of hiding away or being embarrassed about who he is, he took the high road by starting a Facebook group called Hug Don't Judge. After just a few days, the group has more than 10,000 members and it's growing by the minute. I am proud to say I am now one of them.
Through this process, I have been able to recognize that what Shaq did likely came more from a place of ignorance, not intentional cruelty. If you think about it, everyone at some time in their life has been the target of hurtful words. I was picked on for having knobby knees and for a quite large gap I used to have between my front teeth. While Shaq may not have been bullied, maybe at some time in his life he has experienced what it's like to endure racist comments (yeah, this story didn't get the same level of media attention as the Donald Sterling debacle, but I get that. The issue of racism is easier for the mainstream media to wrap it's head around due to existing public awareness on that topic). Either way, racism is not right, and it's hurtful.
Well, guess what? That knife cuts both ways, and what Mr. O'Neal did this week hurt thousands of families, including mine. Not cool, man.
I am not using the presumed ignorance to make excuses for Mr. O'Neal and his friends, but I know just as well as anyone who lives (or who loves someone) with ectodermal dysplasia that there is so little awareness about it. Thankfully, we have Hugs Don't Judge for support and the National Foundation for Ectodermal Dysplasia as a resource.
My newsfeed is now filled with images of people of all ages who live with all kinds of disabilities, and I have made lots of new friends who see the world the way I do. They all know there's room for everyone on this earth, and through our differences, we make life an interesting and fulfilling journey.
But we need to do more to educate each other on all conditions that make people different from one another, because the less we understand, the more likely insensitive acts such as the one outlined here will continue. I believe the members of Hug Don't Judge are making that happen, together, and I will do everything I can to help with that mission.
Here, I will offer thanks to Mr. O'Neal and company for bringing all of us together to do this important work. If it were not for this incident, we may never have found each other, as we would not have felt the need to band together and stand up to you.
Since this all started I have received word that Jahmel has now accepted apologies from Shaq and his buddies. Now I, too, must offer my forgiveness. Because if I didn't rise above this and move forward with an open mind and heart, I would be just as bad as any other bully, celebrity or not.
And that is not the kind of example I wish to set for my child, nor is it the way to honor the efforts of my new friend Jahmel, who is the real hero and role model in this tale.