THE BLOG
09/16/2014 03:46 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2014

My Response To A Mean Old Woman

To The Old Woman In The Waiting Room:

I was minding my own business in the doctor's office waiting room this morning. I couldn't help but hear what you and your friend were talking about. The room was small. The three of us were the only people in the room, and you and your friend were talking quite loudly.

I was slightly amused at your conversation about your disdain for everything on television today (except for The Andy Griffith Show), your disgust with today's "vulgar" comedians (you said the last really funny people were Dean Martin and Joey Bishop) and your enthusiasm for the work you are doing on a committee at your church. I was impressed with your busy social calendar, as you talked about an upcoming bridge game and a fundraiser at the library that you're attending.

I was thinking, "I hope I can be like you when I'm your age -- I'm guessing you are in your early 80s -- that I can be involved, active, engaged in our community."

But when you started talking to me, my opinion of you took a sharp, downward turn.

You wanted to know what I was doing on my phone and when I told you that I was checking my emails, you said with great disdain, "I bet you're one of those people who reads books on those Kindle things."

I told you that yes, I read books on a Kindle... and on my iPad, too... and you huffily said, "Do you realize that people are losing their jobs because of you? Bookstores are going out of business because of those Kindle things. People aren't even reading anymore because of those Kindle things."

Your friend piped in and said, "She's right, you know."

I reminded myself to be respectful because you are my elders. I knew there was no way to explain e-books to you and that, given your opinions on other modern conveniences, it was pointless trying to make you understand that using less paper is better for our environment.

Trying not to sound condescending, I answered, "I'm pretty sure people are still reading books ... and buying books. We're just reading them on devices instead of on paper."

At this point, your friend said, "Wait, I know you ... you're that woman who has that program for those retarded people, aren't you."

I again reminded myself to be respectful of my elders and said, "Yep, that's me. But actually, people don't use the word 'retarded' anymore. It's better to use the term 'special needs' or to say that someone has an intellectual or a physical disability. Calling someone 'retarded' is frowned on now."

And you, Old Woman, said...

"What difference does it make what we call them? It's not like they have feelings."

Suddenly, it was no longer amusing to listen to two old women who are stuck in a time warp somewhere between Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson. I ceased to find it slightly charming that you and your friend haven't kept up with the times in entertainment and technology. I was at a loss for words because your callous and ignorant remark shows that you are more disabled than any of the people with special needs that I have the privilege to know.

I was thankful that the nurse called me back for my appointment right then because if I had remained in that small room with you, I'm quite sure I would have unleashed a rant on you, one that would have surely been sprinkled with profanity and one that would have put you in your place... in a decidedly disrespectful way.

I was stunned by your comment ... "it's not like they have feelings."

These words weren't spoken by a backwoods, illiterate, uneducated bigot... they were spoken by you, an Old Woman who went to college and visits the library, an Old Woman who works as a volunteer and plays cards, an Old Woman who reads books and watches television. And yet, you believe... and feel entitled to say out loud... something so despicable.

To be fair, your generation had a completely different understanding of disabilities. Before 1972, people with special needs weren't even allowed to attend school and were routinely institutionalized. The prevailing attitudes of your time must have colored your opinion, which might explain your comment but certainly doesn't excuse it. I shouldn't generalize but I bet you don't think anyone who is different from you has feelings eithe ... you probably dismiss gay people, people with different religious beliefs than you and people whose skin is a different color from yours as easily and flippantly as you dismissed people with special needs and their feelings. And you go to church? You call yourself a Christian?

As enraged as I was, I am grateful that I heard you because you reminded me that all those sayings about "with age comes wisdom" aren't always true and that it takes more than racking up decades to earn respect. You showed me that if I want people to respect me as I age, I'm going to have to keep up with the times ... or get out of the way.

I'm only 53 but, like you, I've sometimes thought that things were better back in the good old days. When the iPhone first came out, I was frustrated with yet another new technology and for a couple of years, I refused to have one since I couldn't master the touch screen. When I saw a 2-year-old swipe his mother's screen with ease and manipulate the apps, I decided I better join in or... get out of the way.

My dance teacher during high school was gay, and so were many of my male partners but it was the 1970s, and they were "in the closet." As it became acceptable to acknowledge the gay community, I remember feeling slightly uncomfortable at first -- not because I judged or disapproved but simply because for the first three decades of my life, openly accepting gay people was such a taboo. Even when it was something I agreed with, changing ingrained ways of thinking was a challenge to me. Despite having seen my friends and mentors live through ridicule and discrimination simply because of who they are, I struggled with openly encouraging them. But I decided I'd better join in or... get out of the way.

There are things happening in the world today that I don't quite understand... social attitudes, technologies, trends... so thank you, Old Woman, for showing me that I can't expect things to stop evolving just because I can't keep up. It's my responsibility to keep my mind and heart open to our ever-changing world if I want to remain an active participant in it. I refuse to allow myself to become as closed-minded as you, Old Woman. I will keep up and join in... or I will get out of the way.

"It's not like they have feelings"... yes, Old Woman, they do have feelings... feelings that would be crushed if they heard your words. I know that you, Old Woman, have feelings too but they are buried under decades of insulated, narrow-minded, intolerant thinking. Wake up and look around you. As Bob Dylan once said, "The times, they are a-changing."

Comedians are vulgar, people carry personal computers around in their pockets and most people are aware that all human beings have feelings, regardless of the color of their skin, the church they attend, their sexual orientation, the number of chromosomes they have, the way their brains work, how they communicate or how well they can walk.

Old Woman, please keep your contemptible opinions to yourself... and get out of the way if you can't keep up.