For our first day of work we were in an old chapel that had been part of a military hospital. The building, still with strong military lines, is now an art gallery and various rooms can be let out for conferences and gatherings. I rolled into the chapel to get a sense of the room. Outside was the din of 110 people with Down Syndrome from around the world, all finishing lunch and chatting with friends.
I had a few minutes quiet and given the quiet of the chapel and the atmosphere created by stained glass and high ceilings, I bowed my head and gave thanks that there still were 110 people with Down Syndrome in the world. My prayer was quickly interupted when the room began to fill. Everywhere I looked there were young people, very few elders, with disabilities. The organizers had kept it such that there were very few parents or paid carers in the room.
One of the goals was to hear what the group had to say. It was astonishing that they were so vocal about social intolerance and bigotry. They felt comfortable and loved and home but upon openning the door they felt the chill of discrimination and they entered into community with the expectation of social unkindness.
Yes, those 'happy little Down Syndrome people' have grown up. When getting off the plane here I mentioned that I was going to be working at the World Down Syndrome Conference and one of the women who overheard said, 'Oh, you are going to be surrounded by all smiles.' Besides wanting to puke I looked at the woman and saw that she had adopted one of those faces you get when you look at a lost puppy. Sheee-it that annoys me.
Well, let me tell you, these folks were not smiling when they talked about the names they were called, the stares they endured and the tricks played on them. One woman talked about being played the fool at school - and then being the subject of punishment because others were distracted by her difference. Another talked about having a growing fear of the kids in his neighbourhood as the teasing grows ever more threatening.
This may all depress you but it excites the hell out of me. We could talk about prejudice and discrimination, we could talk about bigots and bigotry, we could talk about individual and social action. These folks had no desire to live as victims. They had every intention of pursuing social change.
Awareness. They have it.
Pride. They are developing it.
Action - thank God I've lived to see the day - it's on it's way.