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.