Before I met my son Max, I’d never spent much time with anyone who has Down syndrome.
There was a disabled man in the small town where I grew up. He was big, and to a child (at least to me) he seemed dangerous. He violated personal boundaries. He seemed to leer at people, especially women. I likely misunderstood him, but he frightened me. In the absence of other experiences, that fear left an imprint.
Before I met my son Max, I was afraid to talk with disabled people.
Two of my children have Down syndrome. I often marvel that their schoolmates don’t seem to be afraid of them. Max and Pia are different from other children. Their speech is often incomprehensible. They play differently, and they learn differently. They interrupt, and sing loudly off key, and sometimes bolt from the classroom.
But their schoolmates don’t seem to be afraid. My children are greeted with hugs and high-fives each morning at school. When they walk the halls, older children make it a point to call out their names and say hello. One boy regularly angles in the classroom to be seated next to Max. Their schoolmates know my children, and in knowing them, they’ve come to love them.
If I’m being honest, I still find it difficult sometimes to talk with intellectually disabled adults I don’t know well. I don’t know where to begin. Their world is different—they are different—and their other-ness provokes, in many of us, a kind of fear.
That fear has led to a great deal of discrimination against intellectually disabled people. It’s led to their isolation and institutionalization. It’s led to loneliness. And for many children with Down syndrome today, it leads to abortion.
Read more at First Things.