It is a sad fact that human beings love to judge each other. This usually happens quickly and with little or no evidence to support our conclusions. We form unfounded opinions based on nothing more than physical appearance – the way someone moves – or the way they talk. None of those things actually tell us anything important about the person, and yet we accept or reject individuals constantly based on our immediate response to their physical presence. It is completely unfair to the people we are so quick to judge, and we also cheat ourselves out of the opportunity to get to know many interesting people who could eventually be very important in our lives.
This is never more true than when it comes to the way the public sometimes reacts to individuals with intellectual disabilities. Thankfully there are many people who willingly accept those whose appearance or behavior may seem different in some way. They are tolerant and respectful, and they do not judge those they do not know. This is how it should be. Unfortunately, there are others who are not so enlightened. They immediately decide that they want nothing to do with the person they perceive as being aberrant. The physical manifestations that sometimes accompanies a developmental disability puts them off. They often withdraw from individuals who have challenges with mobility, or a person lacking fine motor skills or someone with ptyalism. They make no attempt to see the human being inside.
Each one of us believes that we are important and that we have something unique to offer to the world – and we are right. No matter what our physical appearance may be, no matter whether we struggle to express ourselves or if we are restricted in our ability to be active, we are still convinced that we matter, that we are relevant and that we are irreplaceable. But for some reason there are those who do not believe that is also true for individuals who are intellectually challenged. Because their appearance, lack of social skills or mobility issues can make them stand out from the crowd they are shunned by those who will not take the time or make the effort to get to know them as a person.
For many people being in the presence of someone who is developmentally disabled makes them rush to judgment based on nothing more than a brief exchange that does not allow them the opportunity to actually interact with that individual on a meaningful level.
An example would be encountering a young adult with Down syndrome, who is also dealing with significant hearing loss, which causes him to sometimes speak too loudly for the setting he is in. Lets suppose Thomas goes to a nice restaurant with a parent. There are about 50 other people dining. After being seated, he becomes very excited as he looks at all the choices on the menu. His voice rises to a level that draws the attention of those at surrounding tables. His mother does her best to remind him that they are inside a public place and therefore he should lower his voice, but it is no use. Thomas is so happy to be there that her admonitions go unheeded. In this case there would probably be a variety of reactions from the other diners. Some would feel uneasy and wish that the host had seated him farther away from their table. Some, without even realizing it, would stare at him and wonder just what exactly is “wrong with him”. While others might feel sympathy for his mother because she “has the burden of caring for him her whole life”. In each case they would have made a snap judgment about a person without knowing anything whatsoever about him as a human being.
Fortunately, there would be others in the restaurant who would see a person who was obviously overjoyed to be eating out. They would see his unrestrained excitement at all the available food choices. They would see someone who was loved by a caring parent and who returned that affection without hesitation. They would see two people who were happy to be out of the house and enjoying each other’s company. They might wonder if they were there to celebrate a special occasion such as a birthday. They would avoid making an unfair judgment about Thomas as a person, and they would simply accept the situation for what it was; two human beings engaging in one of the normal activities of society that we all enjoy.
For those who felt uncomfortable in the restaurant and rushed to judgment, they would do well to stop and carefully consider their inappropriate reaction. What made them feel the way they did? Was it just ignorance? Was it a lack of exposure to this particular population? Have they never been around a person with Down syndrome? Do they not personally know anyone who is developmentally disabled – or is it something more unpleasant? Perhaps they actually believe that “people like that” should not be allowed in a public place. Maybe they think that Thomas is not their equal and that he should stay around “his own kind”. Heartbreakingly, there are even some who would think that, because Thomas had Down syndrome, it was wrong for him to even be allowed to be born.
Judgment is wrong because it hurts both the innocent person it is directed at and also the person who engages in such limited and shallow thinking. Judging someone who is intellectually challenged, without really knowing them, is harmful because it reinforces stereotypes that they have struggled against all of their lives. To jump to conclusions about another human being serves no worthwhile purpose. It only adds ignorance and intolerance to the world.
On the other hand, when you meet someone who is developmentally disabled they are usually more than willing to accept YOU just the way you are. They are far less likely to judge you based on a superficial level, and, in fact, much of the time they see you as a potential friend. The world would be a far kinder place if we all took this approach with the people we encounter on a daily basis. We can learn a great deal from those we are so quick to form biased opinions about if we will only learn to reserve judgment until we get to know the person instead of focusing exclusively on the disability.
When we judge – everyone loses.