People routinely dismissed Samuel as someone who was not worth listening to, and those thoughtless actions hurt. At the age of 39, Samuel had spent his entire life being ignored and pushed aside simply because of his lack of clear understandable speech. The fact that he was intellectually disabled had not affected his life nearly as much as his struggles to communicate clearly with others. The cerebral palsy that made it so difficult to get the words out often left him gasping and contorting his facial muscles in the overwhelming desire to express himself just like any other human being. The spittle that sometimes flew from his mouth as he tried to speak made people recoil and turn away. Unfortunately, the more frustrated Samuel would become with their lack of sensitivity the more difficult it became to understand him. It was an endless circle that never improved.
Samuel was four years old before he said his first understandable words. Up until then he had tried to communicate with what ever sounds he could produce. His mother had put him up for adoption when he was born, and he spent his childhood moving from one foster home to another. Some of the people were kind and some were not – but no one ever made the effort to really try to understand what he had to say. Over the years speech therapy had done little to improve his ability to be understood, and the severe tremble from his cerebral palsy made his writing illegible. Even sign language was not useful because his muscle control simply did not allow him to form the words with his hands, and so Samuel had lived his life trapped in a world where he could barely express his most basic needs and desires. It was a world of isolation filled with heartbreaking loneliness.
As a child Samuel had been jealous of the other children who were intellectually challenged. They could speak and therefore they were often considered to be “cute” and “adorable”. He had even heard them referred to as “God’s little angels“. No one had ever referred to Samuel as one of God’s angels. But because the other children could say funny things and easily express affection, they were more readily accepted by others. Despite their disabilities they could verbally make an immediate connection with other human beings.
As Samuel grew older he learned to dread going out in public. It was a nightmare. He hated the stares and the whispers that always happened when he tried to speak. He could feel the pity as well as the disgust of those around him. He didn’t understand why people couldn’t find it in their hearts to just accept him as he was – he only wanted to belong, to fit in, to be a part of things, but as he matured he began to lose hope that he would ever get to enjoy the simple pleasures that others took for granted.
Just recently he had gone to a restaurant to have a nice meal. As usual, his efforts to get the waitress to understand his order attracted the attention of the other diners. Finally he had to point out what he wanted on the menu, but then he desperately tried to make her understand about the tomatoes. Samuel hated tomatoes. He could not stand them, but as he painstakingly attempted to explain to his waitress that he wanted the tomatoes left off, she lost her patience. She interrupted him – quickly read back his order and then abruptly walked away leaving him struggling to convey his one simple request. Slowly Samuel became aware of the other diners. He could feel their eyes staring at him. At that point he wished he had just stayed home and heated up something in the microwave – something without tomatoes.
It seemed that every time Samuel attempted to speak to someone they would try to guess what he was saying and then finish his sentence for him in order to save time. Since they typically had no idea what he was trying to tell them they usually got the information completely wrong. This even happened during his appointments with his doctor. His personal physician always seemed pressed for time and as soon as he asked Samuel a question he would begin answering it for him – often coming to the wrong conclusion. Once when Samuel became frustrated by this, his doctor prescribed something to help him calm down. It made Samuel furious, but he knew he couldn’t show his anger or the doctor would misunderstand that emotion too. Over his lifetime his inability to communicate with the medical profession had caused him to be prescribed the wrong medication on more than one occasion.
The challenges regarding his speech always intensified when the situation had an element of time attached to it. The more others were in a hurry the less patient they were. A few weeks back Samuel had been in the checkout line at the supermarket. He was trying desperately to ask a question of the cashier as the other shoppers waiting in line began to get irritated. Finally he heard a little girl behind him ask her mother, “What is wrong him?” and the mother answered with great sympathy, “it’s not his fault – he’s just stupid.” Samuel immediately became silent and simply paid for his groceries. He wanted to turn around and tell the mother that, although he struggled with his speech, his hearing was fine, but he knew he would never be able to make her understand his words.
However, even in situations where there was all the time in the world, people still refused to make the effort to understand what Samuel had to say. He could be understood if someone was extremely patient and was willing to give him their absolutely undivided attention – but that never happened. People were always in a hurry. They were always rushing. In any conversation Samuel was always dismissed because the discussion moved too quickly for him to join in. It was so frustrating because he had thoughts, ideas and opinions that he wanted to express face to face with other people, but the unpleasant struggle to be understood always left him feeling depressed. He knew he had the right to be heard, but it seemed that no one would take the time or make the effort to really listen to what he was saying…
…But then one evening, out of the blue, Samuel met someone who changed his life. He had gone to a dance that was sponsored by an organization that provided social activities for those with developmental disabilities. As was his usual custom he stood quietly by himself away from the dance floor, and he carefully avoided the dozens of conversations taking place around him. He had only agreed to come to the event for the free food and he certainly didn’t expect to participate in any of the fun. Unfortunately, the food wasn’t that great and the few dishes he liked were, of course, covered in tomatoes.
As he stood brooding to himself that he had managed to waste yet another evening of his life, there was a soft tug on the sleeve of his jacket. He slowly turned and there was a lady that looked about his age. She was wearing a lavender dress and she had her hair up. He couldn’t believe how pretty she looked. He recognized that she had Down syndrome and he noticed the hearing aids she was wearing, but he couldn’t help staring at her eyes. There was a kindness and gentleness in them that was striking. He was startled when she asked, “Would you like to dance?” Samuel started to answer but he caught himself and just shook his head “no”. She shrugged and cheerfully said, “My name is Grace. What’s your’s?” Samuel kept looking at her beautiful eyes and wished with all his heart that he could tell her, but he was too embarrassed so he turned away. Grace reached out and gently turned him back around so she could see the name tag that he had been given. In his nervousness he had forgotten all about it. “It says your name is Samuel. I am happy to meet you.” At that moment she smiled the most beautiful smile Samuel had ever seen – and he melted. He simply couldn’t believe that a beautiful girl was speaking to him and even asking him to dance – but then suddenly his mind jerked him back to reality as he remembered that she had not yet heard him speak. His heart sank.
Samuel wanted to run somewhere and hide. He could not face anymore pain or rejection. He’d had a lifetime full of both, and he was sick of it. He quickly decided it would be better to just get it over with and let her know that she needed to approach someone else. He gulped and began to form his response with excruciating slowness. As he labored and struggled to say just three words he was expecting her to turn away, but she did not. She leaned in, closely watching his lips as he gasped out, “I can’t dance.” As he breathed heavily he waited for the inevitable, but she did not recoil in horror, nor did she did flinch in disgust. She simply smiled that incredible smile and said, “That’s okay, I will teach you! Let’s go.”
She had understood his words.
Samuel couldn’t believe it. He had spoken to her and she had understood what he said. Not only that, she didn’t seemed bothered by the fact that it was a physical ordeal for him to say it. As he was trying to process what was happening, Grace took him by the arm and guided him to the middle of the floor where they were surrounded by other couples. Suddenly he didn’t feel self-conscious. Nobody was paying any more attention to him than they were anyone else. Everyone was having too good of a time moving to the music to be concerned about a new couple coming out of the floor. Slowly Samuel began to copy the steps that was Grace was doing. Before long he began to feel comfortable and he relaxed. She continued to speak to him although it was difficult to hear everything she said over the music, however, they were communicating with their eyes and the way they were holding hands.
They stayed out on the floor for dance after dance. They laughed and held each other gently and neither wanted the evening to end. Each time Samuel spoke, Grace stared intently at his mouth watching closely as he formed the words. It was her loss of hearing that had forced her to develop the ability to read lips. Out of necessity she had learned to pay complete attention to someone when they were speaking. To be part of a conversation she literally had to do exactly what Samuel needed to have done in order to be understood. In a world that can sometimes be so cruel it was her disability that was Samuel’s salvation.
Together they enjoyed the most wonderful night of their lives, but sadly the dance finally came to an end. Samuel couldn’t believe how quickly the evening had gone by, and he didn’t want it to end. He had so much he wanted to tell Grace. He wanted to thank her for picking him out of a room full of people to dance with, and, more importantly, he wanted to thank her from the bottom of his heart for talking with him. It took all the courage he possessed but he managed to work up the nerve to ask her if she would like to go to the 24 hour restaurant around the corner for some coffee. She surprised him when she answered, “Yes, but under one condition. So far I’ve done all the talking, now it’s your turn.” Samuel could feel himself blushing, but he was thrilled that she had accepted. Hand in hand they floated out the door.
For the next couple of hours, over several steaming hot cups of coffee, Samuel poured out his heart to the sweetest, kindest person he had ever met – and Grace listened.
She really listened.