Several years ago when I first discovered I was pregnant with my daughter, I made a decision that disturbed a few members of my family, not the very least, my husband. I decided that, although I would comply with the battery of prenatal tests prescribed by my doctor, I would NOT alter my decision to give birth to my child should he/she be diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome. I am pretty sure that everyone thought I was crazy and though that I had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. I was told that adding Down’s Syndrome to the stresses and responsibilities of dealing with a new baby was well beyond my capacity to understand. Well, my daughter is 16 now. She does not have Down’s Syndrome, but even now, I feel the same.
As a teen riding the bus past a work program for special needs adults, I came to recognize my discomfort and fear of these special people. I would dread those times when the workshop would let out and an entire group of special needs adults would board. They were loud and had little or no concept of personal space. They did not edit their comments when they spoke and even sang aloud if they felt like doing so. It was out of my comfort zone and I couldn’t wait for the ride to end!
Week after week I would experience the same scenario on the same bus route on my way to my part time job. At one point I became uncomfortable with being uncomfortable. I hated that I was so uneasy and judgemental. I hated being afraid. I didn’t even know what I was afraid of! I decided conquer my fears and to immerse myself in a special needs group for the summer. I took a job as a camp counsellor teaching life skills to special needs teenagers.
No one could even begin to imagine what it was like on my very first day, sitting in a classroom waiting for the group of students to arrive. I was incredibly anxious! I was about to spend an entire summer on unfamiliar territory to gain an understanding and conquer my fears. At the moment before the students arrived, my fear was at its peak- or so I thought. Then, the worst happened! The students started to arrive! One by one they entered the classroom; some in wheelchairs, some in leg braces, some alone, some with parents, but all with the same loud, excited uproar that I was familiar with from the bus route. I was having serious second thoughts about this job. These kids were weird. They were loud. They were out of control. I really was not prepared to handle them. I wanted out and fast!
I didn’t leave despite how I felt. I am not, and never have been, a quitter. I had accepted a job and had set a goal and I would not let my employers, my students, or their parents down. I needed to do this for me. I would stay in this freak show for the summer and give it my best shot! As it turns out, that decision was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, it was far from easy! I had one girl attempt to escape from atop a roller coaster, one student strip naked at the bowling alley and walk right up the lane. He was 19, completely physically mature and about 200 lbs. Just Imagine trying to get him dressed again with so many watching and laughing! I had chairs thrown at me, was spit on, vomited on (more than once) and completely exhausted, but it was an amazing experience and one I am so grateful for!
The kids that summer taught me more than all of my years of schooling. The irony in these “freaks” as I once thought, is that they hold the secret we all have missed. They are people in the truest, most raw form. They are more black and white than the rest of us. They don’t spend energy concealing who they really are. They simply ARE. These wonderful people wear their emotions on their sleeves. They dance if they feel like dancing, they sing on the bus if they are moved to do so, they cry if they are sad, they laugh wholeheartedly when they are happy. Trust me, the world can’t help but smile when you hear a laugh that genuine!!! Most importantly, these beautiful people love easily, warmly, and without prejudice. They give themselves to whomever they meet, freely and without fear. They live to love, to be happy and to enjoy life. They are not consumed with want and expectation. I learned that perhaps the fear I felt was that of the unknown. People are most often not unedited and free to express their true feelings. My wise brother once said, “The older people get, the better they get at concealing who they really are”.
What if we were able to be true to ourselves and each other the way these teens were/are. What if we could dance when we wanted to without fear of judgement? What if we could love without fear of being hurt? What if we could simply say what’s on our minds without fear of offending? What if we were able to open our eyes to the “freaks” of the world and learn from them? What if the only true difference between us and them is the fear? What if, we simply learn to embrace the differences in others as just one more opportunity to learn about ourselves and each other?
Until next time, my friends, I leave you with this thought….what if all it takes to accept each other is just a little bit of uncommon sense?