When I was in grade school back in the 1970s there was a classroom down the hallway with the number JO4 above it. Nobody knew what the number actually represented, other than it was different from all the other classroom numbers. But everyone knew that the students in that classroom were different from all the other students in the school: they were special. Special, meaning slow. Special, meaning retarded.
This was in the days before young people with mental disabilities were put into the mainstream classes. So most of the time my peers never gave them a second thought; it was like they didn't exist. A few of the JO4 kids (as they were known) had the unfortunate circumstance of also being physically different in some way - there was one boy whose face looked normal on one side and droopy on the other. When they were seen outside of their classroom they were met by stares at best and derogatory comments at worst.
I never thought that way. I could see in their eyes how much the stares and taunts hurt them, so I would greet them kindly. And I happened to know that one of them was no less intelligent than any of the other kids, but she had a form of cerebral palsy that made it hard for her to control her movements, and so she was placed with the special kids through no fault of hers. Heck, I had even been called "retarded" a number of times because I happened to enjoy reading books that were under my grade level or hanging out with kids younger than me. So I could totally relate. Which was why, when my teacher asked for volunteers to read books and record them onto audio cassette for the JO4 class, I had no qualms about raising my hand.
Just because someone is less intelligent, or has some form of illness or disability, is no reason to be harsh toward them. But the sad truth is that many people fear what is different, and those with special needs are certainly different. They can be hard to live with, hard to take care of, and might not have the capacity to be self-sufficient. But they are human too, and they deserve as much respect as anyone else.
Which brings me to another person that I knew from middle school. His name was Alan, and he came to school in a special bus that was adapted for his motorized wheelchair. He had cerebral palsy so severe that he could barely walk, and his face and body would sometimes contort into scary expressions despite his best efforts to control himself. But there was nothing wrong with his intelligence - he graduated top in his class. Now he is an artist who specializes in storytelling and comedy.
Alexander Graham Bell, Albert Einstein, Walt Disney were dyslexic. Geri Jewell, Thomas Ritter, Josh Blue have cerebral palsy. Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Thomas Gore are blind. They and many others have proven that the world would a better place if we embraced the diversity of our fellow beings.