I saw someone with an intellectual disability stand up for himself today. He spoke right up to a clerk who ignored him in preference for someone else, "I was here first," he said. The clerk was taken aback and muttered, "fuckin' retard." The man I saw left for only a second and then came back with the manager. He was crying but when and when he spoke he fought to keep his voice calm. He explained what happened. The manager asked if anyone else had seen and heard what happened. I said that I had, two other people spoke up as well. The manager asked for all our patience as he pulled the clerk out and had someone come to replace him. The fellow with the intellectual disability, who was, in reality, the next to be served, was the next served. It was over.
The fellow standing next to me said, "He must have an amazing mother." It was easy for me to agree, he must have.
This incident happened well over a month ago. I never wrote about it. Every time I started, I felt like I wasn't far enough away from it to understand it yet. I don't always get the stories in my life, when they happen. I don't always realize a story has happened until long after it has been told. So sometimes I wait and sometimes understanding comes.
Why is it that we always tend to give over the success of people with intellectual disabilities to others?
If a woman stood up for herself, we'd think her a powerful woman. We wouldn't immediately think to attribute her strength to another.
If a gay person stood up for himself, we'd think him a powerful person. We wouldn't immediately think to attribute his strength to another.
We see powerful people all the time and though we may have a vague sense of the support system around them, or of their history of being supported by others, but what we see are powerful people.
Isn't it just possible that the amazing person in the story above is the fellow with the disability? Isn't it just possible that he taught himself how to be powerful, how to use his voice, how to advocate against injustice? Isn't it just possible that he drew on his own resources to give him the strength he needed to face down a bigot? Isn't it just possible that the achievement is his - even if he had a wonderful mother or good support staff or the best teachers in the world? Isn't it possible for a person with a disability to have an achievement that belongs only to them?
I heard a mother once, when watching her daughter give a speech at a self advocate conference, a speech that was well delivered, when her daughter, who was standing beside her, received a compliment, she responded before her daughter could speak, "I worked so hard to get her to where she is today."
Maybe mom did. Maybe mom worked really, really hard.
But is the accomplishment hers?
Does it belong to her?
I get a lot of encouragement and support from Joe regarding my nerves about public speaking. Even with that support, even with the fact that I need him to be in the room with me when I'm giving a new talk because I'm calmer with him there, I feel safer. Even with all that. I am still the one who gives the speech. No one ever attributes the success (or failure) to anyone else. What's mine is mine.
Perhaps it's time we started seeing people with intellectual disabilities as capable of owning their own success stories, owning their own growth and development, owning their own adulthood. Perhaps it's time we stop taking from them the things that make them powerful, independent people. Perhaps it's time we recognize that it's our need to feel valued for what we do that disallows people with disabilities the experience of feeling valued for what they've achieved.
He spoke powerfully, he responded with courage, he confronted bigotry and he did it with calm dignity. He is a powerful man. He acted in such a way that the store is now a safer place for all people with disabilities.
He did that.
With his courage.
With his determination.
With his power.