Friday, January 09, 2009

Caution: Written While Angry

I could tell he was nervous, but I've learned not to ask. After the usual 'catching up' chat, he said, "Can I ask you something?" It's taken years for me to learn not to rush people into conversations they aren't ready to have. Breathe. Wait. It will happen, almost always.

"What's up?" I ask.

"A couple of weeks ago I was in Blockbusters in Ottawa and these two teen guys came in. Both had Down Syndrome and they looked like they could be brothers, not because they both had Down Syndrome but because they looked like each other. Anyways, they were both wearing Ottawa Senators coats, and touques, and scarves. I made a joke with them that they both must like the Sens. The older one asked me my favourite team and I told him that I was from Toronto, so I kind of had to like the Leafs." Suddenly he stopped in the story. I could tell that it was not a dramatic pause to increase tension, he was struggling to tell me what happened. What did I do? Breathe. Wait.

"Then he came over and grabbed me into a big hug and said he was sorry that I had to have the Leafs as a team. I mean, what he said was funny and all but he hugged me. I was a total stranger and he just openned his arms and hugged me. Everyone around was smiling like something wonderful was happening and I didn't know what to do. I remembered you talking about how dangerous that kind of behaviour is and now that I have a child I really worry that she not be too friendly or too outgoing. I could have been anyone. I could have been someone bad. But I just let him hug me, what should I have done?"

We ended up having a very long conversation but what struck me about this conversation was the fact that my friend, who does not work in the area of disability, does not have family members with disabilities, understood that what this young fellow did was a) wrong b) dangerous and c) wildly inappropriate and that obviously none of his care providers did. It seemed ironic that a stranger (the one who is supposed to be dangerous) wanted to know the right thing to do so that he could somehow keep this young man safe. So a stranger wants to teach safety skills ... um ... isn't that more the purview of parents, of teachers, of someone?

Its important to note that these two young menn were out and about without supervision, that means that someone, somewhere, decided that they had the skills to successfully navigate the community. Yet here was an active demonstration that at least one of them engaged in behaviour that could be misinterpreted, (what if he'd grabbed and hugged a woman, or a child) or that could lead to abuse (if he's gonna hug a stranger, he'd probably go off with him too - to have a pop or find a puppy). I shudder to think what the future holds for this guy.

Don't even think of leaving a comment saying that the world should be accepting of hugs from strangers or that we could all learn something from this young man's openness -- that's nothing but twattle and I won't have it! The world has no need of accepting boundary violations from strangers. Openness is cool but boundaries are cooler. Enough said on that score.

We have a responsibility to parent kids to live in the real world, teach people to navigate the real dangers in the community. Yes, some of the teaching is painful, some of the lessons bitter to learn, but we all did and we're all fine. I do not believe that people with disabilities are naturally trusting, I think they are often sociallized to be friendly dogs that seek out affection from everyone. Forgive me for the bluntness but I want to shock people into recognition that what we do and what we teach matters.

My friend is armed with strategies and knows now what to do should this happen again. It shouldn't have happened once, but I'll bet it happens again.


rickismom said...

I remember years ago reading in your book (from Brookes) about the story of you refusing to hug a youth, and then telling his irate parents about the boy used for target practice. I have told this story over to many many people. I have made it clear to Ricki's aides that setting normal boundries is a must . And yet... she has still not learned it 100%
and read point 4)

Next year my daughter will probably go into special ed and the school I will choose will be evaluated on several points, this being one of the main ones. You are not the only angry one. Whenever I see someone not respecting her boundries, and teaching her boundries, it makes me FURIOUS!!
You deserve TONS of credit for probably being the person who has brought this message to people's notice more than anyone else.

Anonymous said...

Although I pity any Leaf's fan (although my Sens men aren't doing so swell this season) I would never hug em!

Anonymous said...

I was thinking about this issue this morning. I'm off sick so am watching a bit more TV and on ER there was a man with Downs Syndrome who was meeting his father for the first time after he put him into an institution. I was waiting for the script writers to have the young man hug his father - thankfully they didn't. They shook hands. Someone on that occasion got the message.

Anonymous said...

I live in a small town in Missouri (Dave, you've been there and know how small it is!) Try teaching the folks we support "stranger danger" when staff can't tell if the person is a stranger or a distant relative. Seems like everyone here is related in one way or another. Our staff is usually college kids from out of town. They have no idea if the person is a someone favorite 3rd cousin Joey, or someone they've never met before.

I can't even get angry anymore. I just sigh and keep pushing the rock up the hill. :)


Anonymous said...

Dave, for a post "written while angry," this was still well thought-out, rational, and written up you your normal excellent standard. Thank you for such a wonderful blog. Even when you write about issues I am uncomfortable with, it is always one of the highlights of my day.

Anonymous said...

On a personal note....I'm a hugger. Most likey if we meet in person, you'll get a hug from me.

Anonymous said...

A few years ago, I had a daughter who was very friendly to everyone. She'd RUN up to anyone and start talking. A lot of times, she run around the corner of the aisle in the store to talk. And no matter how many times we talked to her about stranger danger, etc she kept doing it. Then one day, when she was about 4 the "grandpa" looking stranger that she was talking to her said "I'm a stranger. I might look like a nice grandpa, but I could be mean and hurt you." The light turned on in my daughter's eyes and after that she was a lot more cautious.

Sometimes, no matter how many times we as parents teach our kids about appropriate behavior, it helps for them to hear it from someone else.

Anonymous said...

I read your blog often Dave, and I have to say this post, and maybe one other have really rubbed me the wrong way. The other was also about young adult with DS.

I think as a parent you have a responsiblity to teach your children all that you can - but you also have to realize that people with DS are still people, and they can make their own choices. I think it goes for typical children, as well as those with disabilities. You can teach and teach and teach, and I think you don't give parents enough credit sometimes, we are doing the best that we now how, and even with the correct teaching and practice, kids still slip up - typical kids, and kids with DS.

I think it's very wrong of you to be angry and to judge their parents and caregivers from afar. I felt that way with your post on the girl with DS at the restaurant, and I feel a bit that way about this post about this young man. You were very unfair to this girl's mother, for all you know she needed the sensory input of her mother touching her to feel calm, or perhaps she has an anxiety disorder on top of having ds. There are a multitude of reasons her mom could have been doing it, or a multitude of reasons the girl hung on her mother or was so needy. They don't all have to be that the mother never did her job in trying to teach her daughter independence. And, not every person with ds is going to understand things the same way - there is a huge spectrum of abilities. I felt the judgement was very unfair.

Personal space and boundaries are very very important - and I'm sorry your friend felt uncomfortable and was worried about this young man. I have a son with ADD that we spent months teaching about personal space, because it took him a long time to understand - and sometimes he still forgets. In love languages, he is a "touch" kind of person - he both feels and gives love through touch. Some people are just more huggy and touchy than others.

As for your friend - perhaps he could have mentioned his concerns to the young man, as a reminder, since he was already having a long conversation with him. I'm sure the young man wouldn't have taken offense and would probably have learned something from it. It takes a village sometimes ;)

But I also think you need to step back sometimes before making judgements from your observations. We are doing the best that we can with the tools that we have, and we have our kids best interests at heart.....

Miss Magic said...

Perhaps you ought to take a bit of time to learn about intellectual disabilities before being so harsh and critical. Maybe an ignorant person could say, "you could walk if tried harder."

Certainly, some people encourage their children to seek too much affection, but an indictment like your is outrageous and judgmental. I know you cannot be an expert on every disability, but if you are going to blog about one, perhaps you might want to learn a little bit more, first.