As I squeezed him back, I looked down into the face of a complete stranger, but he was marked with a familiar feature, Down syndrome.
“I’ve missed you,” he told me.
“I’ve missed you too,” I replied with a warm smile covering my face from ear to ear. I knew from past experience that the fun was just beginning. Soon I would star in the lead role of “his friend.”
“It’s my birthday tomorrow,” he said.
I squeezed his arm and said, “Happy birthday.” The next sentence out of his mouth told me that his birthday was more than a month away. However, I continued to play along. “What are you doing for your birthday tomorrow?”
“I’m going to Disney World!” His smile was contagious.
His warmth and friendliness made me want to reach out and hug him again. Instead, I said, “You have fun, okay.”
As we parted ways, I smiled. This stranger, this man with Down syndrome, had just brightened my day. He was fun, innocent, and totally sincere. He enjoyed my company, and I enjoyed his.
Later that night, I told my husband about seeing this man at the grocery store. He said, “I’m glad that he met you there and not someone else. Not everyone would have treated him as kindly as you did.”
Although this statement is true, it is disturbing. People are often deprived of great joy by their failure to connect with people who have disabilities, and parents often miss the chance to set an example for their children by establishing relationships with people who have special needs.
However, I reach for these opportunities because hanging out with people who are mentally ill, mentally handicapped, or physically handicapped is like a vacation day for me, and it allows me to be a good role model for my children. It’s also a chance for testing my intellect as I engage in impromptu games of “make their day” or “enjoy their company.” Whether I join a grown man in pretending that he has chipmunks in his belly or become the immediate best friend of someone with Down syndrome, I’m having a good time.
I accept people with disabilities for who they are and make it a point to enjoy their attitudes towards life. I wasn’t always this open to accepting their attitudes and meeting their needs for companionship. Sometimes I’ve had trouble throwing political correctness out the window. For instance, when I became the president of a group home for men with mental handicaps, I had a kind, middle-aged gentleman come up and introduce himself to me. The first question out of his mouth was, “Can I call you ‘momma’? I’ve never had a mother.”
All my training with the state of Florida had told me that people living in a group home should not call the group home’s administrators mom and dad. It was strictly taboo. Yet his eyes were big and pleading. His hand reached out for mine. I stammered, “The state doesn’t want you to call me ‘momma’. My name’s Melissa.”
“My parents died when I was just a little boy.”
Being a softie, I just couldn’t take it anymore. “Of course, you can call me ‘momma’.”
He grinned and hugged me tight. As I squeezed my ‘son,’ who was 10 years older than me, I wondered if I had done the right thing. In the days that followed, my concerns disappeared. He enjoyed being a part of my family and having a sense of belonging.
Through that experience I learned that opening up my family to people with disabilities was a wonderful experience for everyone involved. As I interacted with this man and others who were handicapped, my children learned a valuable skill—caring for other people.
The guys under my care also cared for me and my family. They smiled when we walked into the room, and always enjoyed the outings that we took together. It was a wonderful way to make a living—hanging out with guys who loved to have fun and go shopping.
Yet when I took my guys out to eat and to the local stores, I noticed that people didn’t share my high opinion about ‘my guys’. I noticed rolled eyes and people either turning their backs or pointing at us. Racial prejudice has lessened since the Civil Rights movement, but prejudice against people with disabilities is still prevalent. In today’s society it is common to have friends of all different races and ethnic groups, but how many people are friends with someone who has a disability? How many people are willing to accept someone whose intelligence falls below 70 on the Stanford-Binet intelligence scale?
State and federal laws, such as The Education for Handicapped Children Act of 1975, have mandated free education for people with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 mandated accommodations, such as handicapped parking, to make it easier for people with disabilities to participate in everyday activities. As a society, we’ve complied with the laws regarding education and training, assistance with employment, and special parking and bathrooms for the handicapped. However, we have refused to allow people with disabilities into our personal lives. We open our businesses to them, but we shut them out of our circle of friends. We give them a special stall in the bathroom, yet we won’t consider giving them a special place in our hearts.
As a society, and especially as families and parents, we should learn to accept people who cannot put on a mask of perfection. Their imperfections are open for display, while the rest of the population masquerades as specimens of perfection. We are all filled with flaws; some of us are just better equipped to hide them. Don’t we want to be accepted by others? Then why do we withhold our acceptance from those who need it most?
Maybe it’s because people do not understand the fun and camaraderie that they can experience with those who are handicapped—either mentally or physically. Maybe it’s because families do not understand that their children could benefit from these interactions (with the proper parental supervision). Perhaps if our families had more contact with those who had disabilities, our families, and society as a whole, would experience more joy. Just as the cultural heritage of the United States has been enriched by embracing all races and ethnic groups, our nation can also be enriched by embracing people with disabilities. Perhaps the most disabling force in our society today is not the people with disabilities, but our failure to appreciate the people with disabilities and to draw rich rewards from relationships with them.