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On paper, the mentally challenged are not who we think

What should have been plain to anyone of any intelligence eluded only the man in the room who is not mentally handicapped.

A few weeks ago, I went to buy some paper for my printer. I use three-hole punched paper, and at the small stationery store I frequent, it's always on the third shelf across from the creepy inspirational posters. You know the ones I mean: pictures of soaring eagles or sweating marathon runners, with the caption "Excellence is Achievement" or "Attainment is Excellent Achievement" or "Achieve Excellent Attainment" or sometimes just "Hang In There, Baby."

I pick up a package of paper, check to see that it's three-hole punched, and take it to the counter where Edgar, the mentally challenged man who works there, stands at the ready to collect my money and carefully place my package into a plastic sack. Is it OK to say "mentally challenged?" I understand that the word "retarded" is considered hurtful, so I don't use it. But I'm not sure we've really come up with a good, efficient way to describe a person who, by accident of birth, is just slower-witted than everyone else.

Edgar has been working at the stationery store for as long as I've been going there, which is about seven years, and he and I have developed a certain conversational tradition: he asks me if I found everything all right, I say I did, then he babbles some senseless non-sequitor in his watery, nasal voice and I say "Yes, yes" in my strained, cheerful one. The goal in all of these interactions - at least, for me - is to get in and out of the store as quickly as possible without being a brusque jerk to the mentally-challenged guy behind the counter.

It's not as easy as you'd think. This time, like every other time I've been in that shop, I place the package of paper on the counter. Edgar looks at it, points to the pink stripe running across the logo and shouts "Pink! Pink!" I smile. "Yes, yes," I say, then ostentatiously look at my watch to convey the urgency of the transaction. "Pink!" Edgar says again. "Yes, pretty pink," I say, and then, pointing to the plastic cup filled with blue pens, I say "And bright blue," and then, pointing to the display of Post-It notes, I say, "And pretty yellow, yes, yes. Now, Edgar," I add, my voice rising in volume to the exact level where strained, cheerful becomes strained, cheerful, irritated: "Edgar, how much will it be?"

He takes my money - a bit sullenly, it seems to me - and puts my package in a paper sack. I take it home, unwrap it, start loading it into the printer, and notice something strange. It's pink paper. The pink stripe running across the package, which I assumed was some kind of graphic design adornment was, in fact, purely informational. It means "pink paper inside" which is why Edgar, who has seen me purchase white paper approximately 36,987 times, mentioned it. And on the other side of the package, which like any normal not mentally challenged person I didn't bother to look at, it says in thick black sans serif : "Colour: Hot Pink".

Obviously, I had to go back to the stationery store and exchange my paper. My original plan, I'm ashamed to say, was to go back to the store when Edgar wasn't around and present the paper package to the owner with a tolerant, good-natured grin and say something like: "I think Edgar gave me the wrong paper. Can I exchange it quickly? Really, it's no bother. There were a lot of customers here this morning and he was really busy."

And then I'd chuckle indulgently and that would be that. I'd still be the smart guy and he's still be the mentally challenged guy who takes too long to ring me up. But Edgar was there, at his usual perch behind the counter, and before I could explain, he took the package of pink paper out of my hand and held up a package of regular, white three-hole punch paper. "This is white," he said. "Yes, yes," I replied. "See?" he said, pointing to the label on the underside that said "Colour: White." "Yes, yes," I said.

And I slunk off to my car, feeling his mentally-challenged eyes following me out, hearing his mentally-challenged chuckle at my expense. Maybe the question isn't if it's OK to use the phrase "mentally-challenged." Maybe the question is, who, exactly, it refers to. 

Rob Long is a writer and producer in Hollywood

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