I heard them as the arrived and gathered in the foyer. I had enjoyed my presentations thus far in Dublin but this was the one I looked forward to most. 25 people with disabilities - 24 with Down Syndrome - were coming to learn about abuse prevention. As soon as I rolled into the conference hall foyer I knew that this was where they would gather. There was coffee, lots of it, and Danish pasteries stacked on the tables. "Well, if they don't like me, they're gonna love the treats," I thought with relief.
I waited in the conference room getting myself into the mindset for teaching. The first two guys came in. Both looked to be in their teens. They said "hello" and were heading to a table to take a seat. As we chatted I learned that one of them was 16 and the other 18. Ouch. I made a joke that they were just kids. The 16 year old smiled but the 18 year old guy was affronted. "I am not a kid, I am an adult!" He was not kidding. He was communicating something very serious to me.
It became important to me that he understood my comment. In no way was I implying that he was not a growing adult. I said, "All I meant was that I was over 50 so anyone under 30 is a kid to me." He was still offended, "They may be," he said, "but I am an adult."
OK, point taken.
Adulthood has been a long fought for right for people with intellectual disabilities.
And we aren't there yet.
First came the battle for community.
Now will come the tougher battle. The battle for adulthood. The battle for respect. The battle to be taken seriously.
And the enemies will be different this time. The enemies will come from within. They will be agencies that are so afraid of liability that they will limit rather than free. They will be parents who are so afraid of risk that they will restrict rather than let go. They will be staff who feel that their job is to govern not to guide.
Adulthood will be a battle not fought for by us for them. But by them from us. And they will need the kind of courage that that man had. That man. That MAN. That 18 year old MAN who stood up to me and let me know that he was an adult and would not under any circumstances be referred to in childish ways. Even though I didn't mean what he thought I meant, I said what he heard me say.
Throughout the class I glanced at him and was please to see that he relaxed into the class and even seemed to enjoy it.
At lunch afterwards I noticed him looking at a woman who was very pretty and a couple years older than him.
And you know what?
It was clear.
Very very clear.
That he was a man.