The training was delayed and I was delighted. I was supposed to start right at nine but for reasons outside my control we didn't get going until closer to 9:30. A crowd of about 50 people with disabilities sat gathered around tables. Chatting. Just quietly chatting and laughing with each other.
This sight thrills me. I remember the days when people with disabilities spent all their time focussed on staff, seeking out staff attention, desperate for approval from those in positions of power. I remember working in group homes where people would sit silently with each other and burst into words and action only when staff came into the room. I remember, clearly remember, when those with disabilities wanted only 'us' and never 'each other'. To close my eyes and hear this gentle chatter means so much, it says so much about acceptence of self, of others, of disability. It moves me.
But then I notice that there's one table that is absolutely silent. A group of teens has come from the local school. They are all seated together. Two or three have Down Syndrome, the others have unidentifiable disabilities. They sit fascinated watching the same room that I am seeing. All the other tables are full of adults, people 20 or even 30 years their senior. The teens glance at each other and then back over this sea of disabilities. I wonder what they are really thinking, what they are really seeing, how they are really understanding what's happening.
Finally I am given the go ahead and can begin. The session goes quickly and well. It is a lively group with lots of desire to participate and learn. It's an honour, an absolutle frigging honour to teach those thought incapable of learning. It's a privilege, an absolute frigging privilege to see capability where others only see inability. The group inspires me and we all rise to the challenge of the material and the support of each other. Very cool.
During a discussion of emotions, one woman - maybe 45 - begins to talk about her love for her husband, who couldn't come because he was working. She speaks sincerely about the difference he has made in her life and how she deeply, deeply loves him. She has tears in her eyes as do many of the others in the room. A woman sitting besider her touches her shoulder in solidarity and support. I notice the teens listening so hard that their ears have doubled in size. They are captured, as we all are, by her deep words of love.
It's break time and people are up at a break buffet. It's a good one too. Sometimes these are chinzy. Great food for the staff sessions, crap food for the disabled session. Not true here. It's quite a spread. Many are gathered around the table getting things to eat and drink. All of the teens are up at the table except one of the young women with Down Syndrome. She is lost in thought.
When she gets up, she doesn't head to the food or the coffee stand. She walks, instead, towards the woman who had spoken about her husband. She stands in front of her waiting to be noticed. When she is the older woman speaks to her kindly, "Hello, little one," she says and I wait for the teen to protest this language, but she doesn't.
"Hello," she says back and then falls silent.
The silence continues for awhile, I grow uncomfortable but neither of them do. Silence means something different for those with intellectual disabilities. Then finally the young woman speaks, "You are married?"
"Your parents let you?"
"They couldn't stop me."
"Were they mad?"
"At first, but they love him now."
"Were you scared?"
"Of my parents."
"Of being married?"
There was a long pause then a light went on in the older woman's eyes. "Of being laughed at?"
The young woman nodded.
"People have always made fun of me, some people make fun of both of us, say mean things about us being together. But it doesn't matter anymore. Because when I love him I can't hear them."
The young woman with Down Syndrome puts her hands over her eyes and begins to cry. Really cry. The older woman and her friends gather round her and hold her. Quietly.
When she stops crying she backs away from the group.
"You are my hero," she says. Never has that word sounded so sincere.
The session began again but for one of those there, the learning had already happened.