In the early stages of the course, I like to bring friends of mine with intellectual disabilities to class to be both interviewed by me and also interviewed by the students. For example, this past week I brought four folks, divided the class into four groups, and cycled the class through a time of spending a half hour with each person. Typically students tell me they really enjoy the activity and also learn a lot.
In the couse of my intereviews of my friends, I always ask the question, "Do you have a disability?" Their response is often "No" or "I don't think so." Which is instructive to students demonstrating to them that disability is not necessarily the defining characteristic of a person's life. This past week, I received a very interesting response to that question from one of the women I brought.
I asked a woman who has down's syndrome, "Do you have a disability?"
"My friend has a disability" she replied. "My friend has down's
"Really" I answered. "I was wondering if you have a
"I used to have down's syndrome" she replied.
"What was that like?"
"Well I don't remember too well."
I have known this woman for many years and she often says things that are very profound. I don't think she was trying to make some kind of a point but as I thought about her response it seemed very powerful to me. I can be treated like I am a particular way or I cannot be treated like I am a particular way. If I don't know someone with down's syndrome, I can treat them like they are strange, or different, or other. To them that might come to mean that they have down's syndrome. That is, if I have down's syndrome, people treat me like I am strange or different or other. However, if I am just a friend, I am treated as a known friend, and the same as everyone else. In that way it is kind of like I don't have down's syndrome anymore.
I am not saying that we pretend that people do not face challenges from their disabilities, or that they sometimes need some deferential treatment. This is not about denying a person has a disability. It is about treating a person like a person in the 95% of areas of life in which the disability is largely irrelevant. My woman friend with down's syndrome likes conversation and coffee, and working and going to church and dogs, and is concerned about her aged father and so on and so on. And she also has down's syndrome. This is not the greatest comparison, but I have bad knees. However, I can be in situations where my bad knees are always front and center or my bad knees are pretty much forgotten. In most of my daily life, you needn't remind me of them because they are irrelevant. There are aspects of disability that are like that, things about down's syndrome that are like that. I don't have to bring someone's down's syndrome front and center all the time. There are times when I might, but not very frequently in most of my interactions with people.
So my friends words were very encouaging to me. Perhaps her down's syndrome is not the focus of her life that it was when she was in school, or trying to get eligible for some services. At this point in her life, to her, she "used to have down's syndrome." Now she is just "a normal human adult" as she would say.