“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Why so accepting?

Continuing on with my last entry, I wondered why persons with mental retardation (in particular) are so accepting of others, almost an unconditional acceptance.

You might say, that because of the state of need they find themselves in, they have somehow learned to be accepting in order to get what they need from others. I think there is some truth to the fact that acting politely has been pounded into them by parents and others. I remember a woman who had down syndrome who was a friend of mine who would precede literally anything she would say with, "Now, I want to say this in a nice way . . ." Obviously those around her had constantly reminded her to say things in a nice way, and it became a part of her vocabulary. However, people who can help them and people who cannot help them are both treated with the same general level of acceptance. So the notion of being nice in order to "get something" is really pretty much foreign to these individuals.

You might say they are accepting in order to get friends, because they lack friends. I am sure there are those who are lonely for whatever reason (parents won't let them out of the house, aspects of their disability, etc.) but although they may lack friends within the nondisabled community, they are often rich with friends within the community of persons with disabilities. In interviews I have done with adults with disabilities, they pretty much equate their friends with and without disabilities. I have also noticed that the network amongst persons with disabilities in the community can be pretty extensive.

But there are characteristics of persons with disabilities which endear you to them, make you feel accepted. Its funny that in interviews with adults with disabilities, if I ask who their best friend is, they always say me, and if my son Josh is in the room, they also say Josh or whoever else is with me. Now as with other people there are some with disabilities who I am very close to and others with whom I am just friends. But they characteristically, will take the person close to them at the moment, in the room, and refer to him as their best friend. I know caseworkers who have been confused by this. Because they hear such affirmations from disabled adults they believe that that is the case, but it is not. This is not a put down of the caseworkers and perhaps they are the best friend of some of their clients, but rather it is a statement about persons with disabilities. As in the old Crosby, Stills and Nash song, they truly do love the one they are with.

Because of characteristic difficulties with social skills, the manner in which this acceptance is shown is not always understood by those without disabilities which causes some of the distancing. A fellow I know, whenever he sees me, will steal my keys, or tickle me (I haven't been tickled in many years, except by him), or grab my hand and refuse to let go. All these are expressions of affection by him. But he did these things the first time we met. If people aren't in an accepting mindset I think they probably will reject these kinds of advances even though they are innocent and friendly on the part of the individual with disability.

Another reason persons with mental retardation are so accepting is that they don't always understand the subtle social cues indicating rejection. These minor social skill deficits will at times get them into trouble in the workplace. These same inabilities to recognize social cues will cause them to be undaunted in social relationships. They themselves are different. If for some reason they don't like you, they will say so; you pretty much always know where you stand. Whereas we in our socially appropriate manner will give you subtle cues of rejection becoming increasingly more overt in our rejection. There is something refreshing in someone honestly saying to you, "I don't like you because you use bad language," or "I don't like you because you hit other people" as compared to speaking about others behind their backs or simply avoiding them.

By way of example, we recently had a new member come to our church program for adults with disabilities. The new guy, a big fellow with down syndrome, came in. I immediately plopped myself down by him and started to make conversation. "Where are you from?" "Do you have any brothers and sisters?" "What do you like to do for fun?" "What kinds of things bother you?" After answering all the questions preceding, he answered the last question, "I don't like people asking me a bunch of questions." Great answer, great honest answer. We have continued to grow in friendship, and I know I can count on him to be honest with me.

One can never take a whole group and characterize them in one particular way. That is called stereotyping. However, just a persons with down syndrome look like they are all from the same family, I think there is a characteristic of persons with cognitive disability, with mental retardation, which makes them similar in the ways in which they interact with others. In the midst of their mental retardation, God gives them in some ways, a social advantage. It is a strange combination of honesty, a lack of defensiveness, gregariousness, and social ineptitude. There is also an ability to be forgiving which I think is beyond that of the rank and file nondisabled person.

I have always thought that persons with down syndrome have the perfect social make up to be great Wal-mart greeters.


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