In the World of Disability, When Does the Difference Make a Difference?

I’m going to tell you three things and you tell me what’s the connection, but I’ll be “I” and I’ll be you”, deal?

  1. Two actors with Down Syndrome star in an adventure movie, and in one scene they get married then sneak away in the back of a truck making passionate love through the night.
  2. A woman with an Intellectual/Developmental Disability (IDD) sits down next to your 12 year old son on the bus when he’s riding alone, and proceeds to rub his back and ask for money.
  3. I don’t actually have a third one but I’ve heard people always remember things in three’s.

Or actually it’s one…and that one is, “does the difference make a difference?”

As I cringed watching the actors (who were actually marred in real life—which would absolutely not make a difference if the actors didn’t have Down syndrome.  In fact, could you imagine if in Hollywood only actors who were married could make love to each other on screen?  Hollywood would shut down).  But in this case the…wait…I was in the middle of a sentence…

As I cringed as I watched the young couple have a wonderful, jubilant wedding and then sneak away into the night and begin to kiss, my knee jerk thought was “Wait!  Are they allowed to do that?”  “Someone stop them!” “The Director* is taking advantage of them!”  To “wait, they are independent adults with the same dreams and aspirations for love and connection as anyone else, and there is absolutely no reason they shouldn’t be doing this…to “wow, a sensitive, empowered self-actualized love scene between two people with Down Syndrome on the big screen, with absolutely no neurotypicals anywhere in the script to pass judgment or tell them to stop,” to “that is cool.”

So sometimes our first reaction is not the right one.  Enter the second scenario.

“She was rubbing my back and asking for money,” my son relayed, explaining his seemed disappearance, arriving over an hour late to his destination on an early solo bus ride, part of his budding independence.  “I gave her a dollar, but she kept her arm around me and kept talking. When I tried to get up she held my wrist.”

“Oh my God!  Why didn’t you shout or tell her to stop?!”

“I didn’t want people to think I was mean, because she had a disability,” my son answered.  (He did manage to get up and off the bus and waited for the next one, hence his late arrival)

The thing is lots of people do lots of things, but their race, ethnicity, religion, orientation, or ability often are irrelevant:  It’s not a “gay” wedding, it’s a wedding.   Years ago in art history black or African American artists were separated as their own category, but they were great artists.  We don’t call Bill Clinton our 42nd White President, he was our President.

Tammy Besser, Director of Services for people with disabilities at JCFS says it’s important to speak up if behavior is inappropriate.  “Think of what you would do, what you would say if the person didn’t have an IDD. The difference may explain why someone is behaving differently, but the behavior is still inappropriate.”  Besser adds it’s a developmentally appropriate time to teach my son about setting personal boundaries and role playing about what to say in uncomfortable situations. “I’m not comfortable with you touching me.”  “This is my space.  Stop touching me.”  The person may get mad, adds Besser, “but that’s on them. “

It reminds me of an episode on Hot in Cleveland where Jon Lovitz plays a character Artie Firestone, and he turns to Wendy Malick and Valerie Bertinelli for advice on meeting women.  What they realize in coaching him is that he needs to control his impulse and say the fourth thing that comes to his mind, whereby he goes from saying “My you’re beautiful I want to undress you and cover you in peanut butter” to pause 1, pause 2, pause 3, “the moonlight sparkles in your eyes.”

While we can’t control what pops into our minds—it’s a natural part of our “fight or flight” evolution, we can learn to control what comes out. Sometimes that first thought is completely governed by unconscious biases from media to popular culture to social constructs.  But we can moderate how we respond, to train ourselves for an immediate follow-up spontaneous thought:  “does the difference make a difference?”

For that, I go back to my first list, slightly altered.

  1. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie star in an adventure movie, they get married then sneak away in the back of a truck making passionate love through the night.
  2. A woman sits down next to your 12 year old son on the bus when he’s riding alone, and proceeds to rub his back and ask for money.

And in conclusion, love is good.  Creepy is bad.

I’m ready to teach the lesson.

(*The movie is Colegas O Filme by Brazilian Director Marcelo Galvao—ooh, does that fact that he’s Brazilian make a difference?)