By Stephen L. Braveman, LMFT, DST
September 1, 1999
(This article originally appeared in the Coast Weekly[Public Forum])
I recently attended Pacific Grove’s annual Feast of Lantern’s Friday night street dance, a wonderful, free community event I always enjoy.
As usual, I got up to participate in one of the partners’ dances when I suddenly found my own partner taken by a 5-year-old neighbor. Standing next to me was a young woman of, perhaps, 18 to 20 years old who also had no partner and appeared eager to join in. When we were instructed to grasp hands with the ones next to us, I naturally took hers and she became my dance partner. While she appeared to have some difficulties following the various steps and was somewhat shy and quiet, all went well. When the dance concluded, I thanked my young partner and walked away. Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to face a tall man who thanked me for being so nice to his daughter.
While I appreciate a thank you, and certainly believe the world would be a better place if we had more of them, I found this one a bit inappropriate. It was obvious to me that my young dance partner was what is technically called high-functioning developmentally disabled. In lay terms, mildly mentally retarded.
I have more than 15 years experience working with developmentally disabled adults and many more working with a wide variety of special populations. I have the training and experience to recognize and treat people with such issues. I am aware that the majority of the population does not.
To me, people with disabilities are people. Therefore, I gave it no thought when I joined hands with my special dance partner. I was certainly not afraid or put off. I also lacked any sense of obligation or pity for this woman. I accepted her as my temporary partner and that’s all.
So why was this young lady’s father’s thank you inappropriate? How does this add to the already existing prejudice against the mentally disabled?
During my lifetime, I have seen many down-trodden groups fight for freedom, equality and justice. For many, just being recognized is top priority on this list. Disabled people have had to fight for these rights and many times have had to rely on others to do the fighting for them. This is especially true for the developmentally disabled, who are typically incapable of doing this for themselves. The goal for many disabled adults is to fit in. Being accepted as an “average” human being is a wonderful and very valid goal for many.
While I understand the man’s appreciation, it called attention to what was fine unspoken. The message was, “Hey, my daughter is disabled, and you did a nice thing for her.” Instead, I believe the message should have been, “Hey, she is a woman and member of this community like any other, why not treat her as such?” The young lady would have probably benefited most if her father’s comments were to her, not me.
Yes, thanking others for something special is wonderful. We should all do more of that. Accepting another human being should not be special. It should be a given. Parents, if your child is disabled, help them out by thanking them for doing such a wonderful job when they reach the goal of fitting in, of being “average.” For the developmentally disabled this is truly special and wonderful!
Stephen L. Braveman, M.A., L.M.F.T., D.S.T. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Certified Diplomate of Sex Therapy with a Private Practice in Monterey, California. You can reach him at (831) 375-7553 or via his web-site at www.bravemantherapy.com.