I believe that all people have a place in the world, and have something valuable to contribute to the human family. I believe that all people should be encouraged to self identify on their own terms. In this way we become more open to what we can learn from each other, and our lives become enriched.
I grew up the 70’s and 80’s. My younger brother was born when I was 3. He experiences intellectual disability, or as it was termed then, mental retardation. At the time it was encouraged that people with intellectual disability would be placed in an institution. This was recommended to our family. We were told he needed expert help and teaching that could only occur in a special place for kids like him. My brother never went to the institution. I was happy about this because in my view he had done nothing “wrong” and should not be sent away just because he learned differently than everyone else.
Our family life for me had an odd sense of being on parade at all times- since we stuck out in all settings and people were not shy about questions, put downs and assumptions. My brother was included in everything the family did.
My brother became my “special project” because I was convinced that he could learn and I was able to teach him. We spent many hours together in which I would play teacher and set up classroom activities like I was experiencing in school. It was clear to me that he could and did learn. In my efforts to teach him, I ended up learning.
Our early life together was full of as much love as it was intense training in observing social behavior and assumptions, on both personal and wide-reaching levels.
Today I’m in grad school, learning to become an adult educator. I work in social services, trying to arrange lifelong learning, although my coworkers would probably not call it that, for adults with intellectual disabilities. I question why there is a lack of options for people who need lifelong learning, and why most education is offered in social services instead of places where adult peers learn.
I now have 2 young sons. Both of the boys have autism. I have a new life of discovery as my boys reveal themselves to me in their own ways. Attitudes have changed since I was young, there is so much more acceptance of human diversity. As they grow and learn, I become transformed. A new vision of people being together exists. This is based on interdependence, as we see that the more we spend time learning together, learn about each other, and teach each other, the more we realize that every member of our human family has something unique and valuable to contribute. We are better able to see each other’s gifts, as we contribute in our own unique ways. My brother and sons remain my greatest teachers.
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