I simply had to touch her hand.
Simply had to.
Without question, she had to be at least 50. At least. That meant that she would have been school age at a time when learning, as a possibility for people with intellectual disabilities, was just being considered. I am only a few years older than her and can testify that she, and others like her, were not in my school. Where they were, was a question I didn't ask. The existence of people with disabilities was kept, like societies dirty little secret, locked away. It shocks me, even now, the lack of outrage that greeted the realization that we had been lied to and deceived about the lives of our brothers, our sisters, our aunts, our uncles, our cousins, our neighbours. The passive acceptance that our personal history was affected by such towering bigotry, both astonishes and grieves me.
She wore a white blouse under a loose brown sweater. Around her neck she wore a necklace that glinted amber in the light. She had been sitting chatting with friends, revelation enough there, as the room filled in anticipation of an abuse prevention training session. That she had Down Syndrome was secondary to her name here, in a room full of people who knew her. Her laughter was free - a tribute to the fight for freedom that her life represented. She glanced over and noticed a line up of people at the front. Each person was signing in for the training. Some assisted by staff, some on their own in big, block letters, some with small neat printing.
Wanting to register herself, she told her friends that she was going to sign in. The line, by then, was long. But gradually she moved near the front. By now I was seated at the table where people were signing in. In a few minutes the workshop would begin and I would be using that table for my notes and my tea. I was getting set up. Joe was standing off to the side, finishing the preparations. I was double checking everything. There were going to be over 60 people there. I wanted to be sure there were no hitches.
Taking the pen comfortably in hand, she leaned down. In beautiful script, she wrote her name with lovely flourish. A genuine, freehand, cursive signature, flowed out of the pen and on to the paper. I saw it and immediately knew that there was a story behind that signature. I knew, instantly, that that signature had come at a cost.
It cost belief.
Some mother, some father, some family, someone had pried open an education system that denied the right to write to people with disabilities. Someone had yelled and screamed and, in so doing, pushed back the forces of bigotry and denial. During the time of her childhood, she would have known isolation and segregation and congregation. During the time of her childhood, she would have been excluded, been rejected, been turned away. During the time of her childhood, I too was a child. I never knew I never knew her. She did not walk the hallways of my school. She did not walk the streets of my town. She did not walk towards the future with expectation.
And yet here she was. A person with a signature. There was a miracle in her hands. She had an ability that would have been thought impossible. An ability that gives the lie to the idea of inability. An ability that challenges the thought that learning could not enter through the soul and leave traces in the fingers. An ability that most would assume she did not have.
I am blessed to live in the time that came after exclusion. I am blessed to be part of a movement that believes in possibility. I am blessed to have the opportunity to teach those believed incapable of learning.
But I am also blessed to have been offered her hand to shake, as she left the workshop. When she reached out to me, with the very hand with which she had signed her name, I took hold of the miracle. I touched magic.
And in that touch, was healing.