A slight change of subject on the blog today: A few months ago our neighbours asked Tim and I if we could like to help out at the Special Olympics taking place this summer in Los Angeles. We were very keen to take up the offer and so today we attended the first in a series of training events to inform us about our role as honoured guest hosts for one the thousands of people that come from all over the world to this huge international event.
For the unaware (as we were until very recently) the Special Olympics are for people of all ages who have intellectual disabilities. As is the way with recruitment events we were shown a few of those uplifting videos set to an up tempo soundtrack showing lots of happy and fulfilled athletes as they struggle against the odds and eventually hold their medals up with pride. One of these videos was actually quite a tearjerker and, along with the talk given by the presenter who assured us newbies in the room that the event would change our lives, got me thinking about how we usually see such people.
This is something I have been pondering upon in other ways too ever since I attended a lecture on disabilities that referred to the audience as “temporarily able bodied”, in that 60% of us will have some sort of disability before we die. I found it quite chilling to reframe our able-bodiedness and our attitudes that go with them in such a way; it makes you feel far less cock-sure of yourself.
Prominent among today’s images were shots of young people with Down’s Syndrome who were enjoying a brief respite from a difficult life made worse by many people’s prejudice. I’m sure none of us like to think of ourselves as actively prejudiced but our distance from and exclusion of such people in ours lives, unless they are relatives, cannot really be explained as anything else.
What must it be like to grow up as someone who is understood by most as a mistake made by nature, to be something that science and scientists invested a lot of time and money learning how not to bring into the world? (If indeed those with the disease are capable of such self-reflection, I’m no expert). We think nothing of working towards the elimination of such diseases, which is understandable, but how does that philosophy affect those living with it and their families?
Like most couples, when we were still trying for kids and I was in my late thirties, we were very sure that I would get the full screen for the disease and if it came back positive it would be an easy decision to make to abort. This memory did not sit well with me today however, when witnessing so many amazing people whose parents did not choose that path and I have to admit feeling more than a little ashamed.
The speaker was right; the event has already changed me in a small but important way. It has made me question how incorporated those with disabilities are in our lives outside of the family. We really do see them as “the Other”, and that is something we need to work on. There is always a choice that can be made about choosing to focus on similarities or differences between the different types of people you meet and today I was reminded that the athletes on the screen today share a lot of our desires and dreams, they’ve just been given a difficult hand. It is our job to use our privilege to help them live as full a life as we do. It must feel awful to be so excluded from society on top of such illnesses, we can’t change their physical realities but we can change our attitudes (and our fear) towards them. And I think we should.