The Unusual Parents

Retarded Couple Raises A Child

When 60 Minutes's Mike Wallace first met Donna and Ricardo Thornton, they were victims of plain and simple prejudice.

This was not because they are an interracial couple, nor because they are both classified as retarded, but because they decided to marry and attempted to do what no one thought they should: have a child. 60 Minutes' Wallace first interviewed them in 1986; now he's returned to Washington to see the family's progress after 13 years.
The Thorntons made their home in an apartment with other mentally challenged people. Their IQs - 67 for him and 64 for her - gave them the label mildly retarded. They hate the label. And had they lived outside Washington, that label could have prevented their marriage.

"I wanted to get married because I didnÂ't want to stay by myself," explained Donna Thornton back in the '80s. "I wanted to have somebody to care for me, and I wanted to care for them."

"I married her because I loved her and I just wanted to help her along and make both of us happy," added Ricardo Thornton.

When they were married in June 1984, not all their advisers approved.

"We come from an institution; weÂ're both, you know, slow learners, and they think weÂ're not going to make it out in the community," said Donna Thornton.

Donna Thornton said that she and her husband didnÂ't fight, but rather they fussed over trivial things.

When asked who runs the family, however, the answer was clear. "I have to say, Donna," Ricardo Thornton said.

Their roles may have been different, but their goal was one and the same: self-sufficiency, to do everyday things on their own, to know what to buy, how to budget their money and how to pay bills. Even writing a check can be a major undertaking when someone is just learning to read and write.

These skills, they hoped, would better prepare them for their greatest dream of all: to have a child of their own.

And, in fact, by the spring of 1986, Donna Thornton was pregnant. But three months later, her pregnancy was in trouble.

Doctors wanted to do an amniocentesis check for spina bifida — big, frightening words for any couple, especially a mentally challenged one. So social worker Shirley Rees took on the role of guardian and grandmother to the Thorntons.

Soon thereafter, Donna Thornton gave birth to a baby boy named Ricky. He weighed only 2 pounds, 11 ounces.

"IÂ'll never forget," she said. "The first thing, I wanted to look at his hands and his feet. I said, 'Does he have his first hands and feet and five fingers?'

"I knew he was going to make it. I knew it," she said.

"We all had GodÂ's prayers. I couldnÂ't believe it. It was just like a miracle. I finally had my baby," Donna Thornton said.

At first social worker Rees became concerned; she realized that simple issues like not being sure when to feed the baby were not so simple for the horntons.

"Donna didnÂ't seem to understand; neither did Ricardo," Rees explained. "And I really panicked at that point, thinking that something would happen to the baby.Â…He wouldnÂ't be fed on time, that heÂ'd be ill."

When asked if the Thorntons should have had this little boy, Rees responded, "I cannot say that they shouldnÂ't have, because heÂ's wonderful!"

"IÂ'm thinking of whatÂ's ahead. And IÂ'm thinking of the future," she added.

Now, in 1999, both the Thorntons hold full-time jobs - Ricardo as a library clerk and Donna as a housekeeper.

Ricardo Thornton has also become an outspoken advocate for people with disabilities. HeÂ's an ambassador for the Special Olympics, a role that recently took him to South Africa.

And Shirley Rees is still very much a part of their daily lives. And as for little Ricky, heÂ's now 12 years old.

The last 13 years have not always been easy ones for Ricardo and Donna Thornton, both as husband and wife and as parents. Raising a child can be difficult enough, and especially complicated for a retarded couple raised in an institution. But they are very proud of their child.

"HeÂ's changingÂ….HeÂ's getting very wise," says Donna Thornton.

Ricky can now speak his mind.

"TheyÂ're just kind people," he says. "Even though they have a disability,Â…they don't let that hold them as an excuse."

"They still do everyday things. They're everyday people, just like anybody else," Ricky adds. "When I was a kid, I was a little bit embarrassed. But now, no."

Ricky says his parents are not much different from those of his friends, and he sees no problems with their disability.

"Everybody else says I have a gift. And I think that gift is them," Ricky says.

But that gift has limitations. Ricardo and Donna Thornton can hardly help Ricky with his schoolwork, and he is below average in some areas. He regularly receives tutoring.

And in some ways it is Ricky who has taken on the role of teacher.

"I have to help them sometimes," he says. "I help him on nouns, verbs and adjectives."

When asked if it bothers her that her son is smarter than she, Donna Thornton says, "Yes, well, yeah." But, she says, it doesn't make her jealous.

The Thorntons do worry about their parenting abilities and work hard at learning how to raise and properly discipline Ricky. While their rent is paid by the city, they are largely responsible for almost everything else in their day-to-day lives.

They enjoy many typical family activities, and they have become a very close family.

And recently, they had a very special dream fulfilled. They met President Clinton, as Ricardo Thornton was one of several Special Olympians invited to the White House.

It was a happy moment for the Thorntons, but that happiness sometimes turns into anxiety when they think about what lies ahead.

"I worry. I worried a lot, yu know, for my son," Donna Thornton admits.

But no matter how much she worries, sheÂ's still thankful for all sheÂ's accomplished. "I used to say, 'Well, one of these days, I hope I can make it, and when I get out, I hope I can get married. I hope I have the right job I want.'"

Sometimes dreams do come true.

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