Friday, May 30, 2008

A Question

What would you have seen?

We were having breakfast yesterday morning. I was a bit distracted because I was preparing myself for a specialized tailored version of one of my lectures that I would be giving in less than an hour. I like it when an agency asks me to adapt a talk specifically to their needs but it's also jarring to the system. I have to follow a new path, zig where I used to zag, so I was running over the flow of the stories and the pacing of the information in my mind.

After placing the order Joe and I were chatting about setting up the book stall, organizing ourselves for our differing tasks for the day. All the while I was glancing around the restaurant. My eyes fell on him for a few seconds. He was dressed neatly perhaps even a bit primly. His hair was parted in a razor sharp line. He ate with delicate bites and had the impeccable manners of a gentleman from the South. He spoke gently with the waitress and he too, glanced around the room. He caught my eye and smiled before looking away. He was alone at the table so, with the exception of an occasional request from the waitress and an answer to the 'how's your meal?' question, he was silent. There were others with disabilities, such as myself, in the restaurant but he was the only one with Down Syndrome, and maybe the only person there with an intellectual disability.

So, a man with Down Syndrome sitting at a table alone in a room full of tables occupied with duos and trios.

What would you have seen?

When I noticed him my first thought was, 'Wonderful.' It was gratifying to me to see a man with a developmental disability completely on his own, having breakfast without the interferece or accompaniment of staff. A man, independant. An adult, self composed. This is the kind of thing that can really deeply move me. Evidence that we've come far.

Joe caught me looking at him and said, "Yeah, it's sad isn't it?"

His comment took me aback and I said simply, "Sad?"

Joe then told me what he saw. Another lonely guy with a disability. Isolation and loneliness are epidemic amongst adults with disabilities and here we saw evidence of that right in front of us. At a conference, not even a conference, a megaconference with 800 people, here was a guy with Down Syndrome sitting all alone. Joe pointed out to me that ironically (or coincidentally, I don't really know the difference) I was giving a talk that morning about the desperate need for us to be teaching relationship skills to people with disabilities.

I looked back that that guy having breakfast alone. I had the sensation that I got when looking at that painting where one way it's an elderly woman, the other way it's a young girl. Which way is right? I could see what Joe saw. I could still see what I first saw.

What would you have seen?


BC Barb said...

sometimes I just like to eat breakfast alone.

Kei said...

I have to say I would have seen a young man, comfortable with who he is and sitting on his own. He smiled at you before he looked away and ate his meal, it seems, without hurry and with a quiet grace about him.
Would someone who felt lonely, isolated sit there composed and confident? Seems to me in my observations as a people watcher that loneliness comes with a certain hunch, the hurried looks away, looking down, trying not to show that you are aware that in a place where duos or groups, you are there alone.

Interesting question though. I look forward to reading the other comments later.

FAB said...

When I hear your story, I see confidence. I envision a man who is so independant that he's comfortable with being on his own, not alone or lonely, but comfortable in his own skin. How many of the rest of us can say that? I had to dine alone yesterday, and I took along a book so that I wouldn't be forced to make eye contact with people. I admire the man you saw.

Anonymous said...

I too like to eat breakfast alone from time to time so I don't think I would have seen it as sad. I also don't think I would assume I was seeing a person with an "intellectual disability" just because he had Down syndrome. My daughter has DS and has an average IQ. The fact that he was sitting at a table by himself, ordering a meal and interacting appropriately with the waitstaff would indicate intellectual ability, not disability. Mary

Anonymous said...

As far as I have ever been able to make out we see ourselves in other people. I would have seen someone like myself who prefers to eat by themselves while doing a bit of people watching. I hope he got many smiles from people he made eye contact with that morning. That is what I am looking for when I meet the eyes of other people.

imfunnytoo said...

I would have come down on the 'alone and isolated side,' but I recognize that at least part of that is my perception.

I notice in your post that you discuss teaching relationship skills to people with disabilities...can you expand on that, on what you mean by the term?

Anonymous said...

My and my partner's first reaction to this was - I hope the prim, impeccable manners this man learned, he learned positively and not forcibly. I've seen too many workers and families drilling, stressing and punishing people with disabilities (and children for that matter) for not using perfect manners, for having a hair out of place or not wearing something perfectly. Whatever the reasons they are like this (I won't detail them now) its still very sad to see that happening and having to "teach" people to lighten up and treat someone as human who doesn't have to look perfect or eat small bites etc. Hopefully the man at breakfast was really content to be himself (and by himself) and to look the way he wanted and live the way he wanted to and didn't have scarred reasons for his being such a positive "catch of the eye".

Anonymous said...

I think I would be relieved to see someone with learning disabilities going out independently, living his life, and it would give me hope. Nearly all of the people I have supported have staff with them 24 hours a day, and I can't help but wonder do they really need that level of support and lack of independence? How is the decision made how much support people need? Is there any plan to help the person learn to be more independent? Not sure how things are in Canada as I am in the UK. I have also seen that a lot of people with disabilities are alone and isolated, and sometimes staff can be partly responsible for that, not being committed enough to supporting the person to develop and maintain relationships, and confusing the role they play themselves in the person's life. But independent but a little lonely is more positive than if he had been there with staff?

Anonymous said...

Personally, I'm perfectly happy eating by myself in restaurants etc. It gives me the liberty to choose places to go that maybe I wouldn't go to if I were accommodating someone else's preferences, and it also lets me read a pleasurable book in peace.

(I'm a voracious reader. If I get too busy to read then eventually my brain starts to itch. Then I have to MAKE time to read even if I STILL have no time to do it! So it was interesting to see fab's comment up above, because for me reading a book in public has nothing to do with "avoiding" eye contact or feeling lonely, it just means I want to read that book!)

So just because a person is seated by themselves in a restaurant doesn't automatically mean they're sad or lonely or wishing they're with someone. Sometimes people dine alone by CHOICE.

And, I'm not sure I'm convinced that you can really necessarily tell the difference that easily just by watching a person's body language. Especially if you don't even know the person. Someone who looks confident may be covering up shyness that makes them want to shrivel inside. Whereas, someone who makes "hurried looks away" ... maybe wasn't even paying attention to their environment at all ... maybe they were daydreaming pleasantly about something, then realized that their gaze might be mistaken as "staring" and pull their glance away quickly to avoid creating that impression. (I day dream a lot. And, especially when I was younger, I have sometimes gotten accused of staring at someone or something when I genuinely didn't even SEE them until they started berating me enough to get my attention.)

Sometimes we THINK we're reading other people's body language when we might actually be projecting our OWN sentiments, moods, and personalities onto them. So if we think we would be lonely in a given context, we assume others must be also. Or if WE tend to hunch over in a certain way when we're feeling lonely, because feeling lonely makes us more self-conscious, then we assume that another person hunching over must also be self-conscious about being alone. When, in fact, they may be bothered by something else. Maybe they're embarrased about the acne on their chin and they're hunching over so no one will see it.

Mis-reading body language can particularly happen when the other person is autistic (because autistic people have very non-standard body language. Often other people's interpretation of their facial expressions and body language are totally disconnected from what they're actually thinking and feeling). But I think it can happen with non-autistic people also.

Shan said...

I am used to seeing people with intellectual disabilities out and about by and having coffee at the bakery and whatnot...we have quite a large and fairly independent community here, I think. I wouldn't think twice about it.

Although I might envy him for being able to eat his breakfast alone and in peace...

theknapper said...

I would have seen a man enjoying his breakfast & it's possible to see a man who's lonely. We don't know his truth. What I want to believe is he's a long way from living in an institution; a very good thing.

All 4 My Gals said...

I think it's interesting to read the comments everyone left. It is such a testimony to the fact that we all have differing perceptions that shape how we see the world.

I love to be alone sometimes, so I wouldn't see him as lonely. If I had my 4 girls climbing all over me and I was unable to eat my breakfast because I was meeting their needs, I might have looked at him with envy. :)

If I had just had an encounter where Tarenne was feeling left out I might have looked at him with worry that she would be lonely as an adult.

And if I was at a conference and getting ready to help you prepare for a talk about relationship skills, I might have seem him just as Joe did.

I hope that I would look at him with gratitude for his freedom, intelligence, independence and confidence....just as you did.