At first I thought he was staff. He had a confident swagger, a cheeky grin and a sense of style that was just the right amount of edgy. A bit cooler than most of us who work in the caring profession, but I get used to the young. It was only after I begun when I realized that he was sitting with some friends, others with disabilities, that he too had an intellectual disability. I'm not sure he'd like that term, here in England they use the term Learning Difficulty.
I had been nervous about the day as I was trying something new. I wanted fresh input into what I was doing so I did an old workshop with a twist. I stopped after each of my planned role plays and had the 50 or 60 people with disabilities and their carers break into groups, come up with their own example and then come up and be filmed doing their little play. I am desperately nervous with new things and had worried, needlessly, about the day. It was a great group and they got into writing role plays, performing them and watching themselves on screen.
He'd been up three times in three different roles plays. He impressed me for a variety of reasons. Primarily, as a guy who needed minimal supports he showed no disinclination with being part of a group wherein some had much more severe needs. Often, those with lesser disabilities want to distance themselves from the 'others' and identify instead with carers. He showed no such need. No such shame of membership. His cool was deeper than his clothes.
During his last role play he came by me and I stopped him and made a joke to the audience. I said, "You know you've played a guy who has a messy, stinky room, a guy who hates Celine Dion and a guy who reads other people's mail ... you must be hell to live with ..." He laughed and said, "Yeah, and I'm a tart too!" The room erupted in laughter.
When it was over and he and I were talking a bit, I had wanted to thank him for his involvement in the day. I noticed that he was wearing a small red ribbon attached to his sweater. I asked him about it. He said that he was wearing it to mark World AIDS Day. He told me that he was a member of a group for people who were HIV positive. Then he talked a bit about his health and difficulties he was having. We spoke about the gay community and it's intolerance and sometimes hostility towards people with disabilities. We spoke about the need tor all, that's ALL, to be educated about how to be safe.
In the end he agreed to work with me to write something for the gay press, maybe the disability press as well about what it is to be gay, to be HIV positive and to be a service recipient. He smiled a bit shyly, I thought, at the idea. Then he said, "I'm up for it."
I remember many years ago when a man with an intellectual disability died of AIDS in Ontario. There was such a cloak of slience about what had happened. A sense of shock and shame. No one would even say his name aloud. This silence has caused damage ... maybe if we'd noticed then that there were real world dangers, that there were real world consequences, we'd have done something. Maybe, at a time when this young man was a boy, if we had taken stock and stepped up to the plate, there would have been training in place. Maybe, maybe, this is our fault.
"They want to sweep it under the carpet," he is saying to me. And I agree.
Today, on World AIDS Day, there is a man with an intellectual disability in Bournemouth handing out leaflets about AIDS awareness, about self protection. You'll notice him, if not by his cool, at least by his deep, deep pride.