By Jeff Keeling
When I was a kid in the 1970s, the very few people I encountered who had Down syndrome were called by a different name. It sounds wrong today even as I say it in my head: mongoloid. I’m glad it’s no longer in use, but it’s what we knew and were taught.
In keeping with that improper, ignorant and stigmatizing description, society put people with Down syndrome – and other developmentally disabled people as well – out of the public eye.
Thinking about it today, I feel deep regret at the pain such practices caused for the families whose precious gifts, their children, were considered unworthy of inclusion and acceptance. I also know without doubt that I missed wonderful opportunities to interact with and befriend lovely people like Joanna Torgerson, who is featured in a page 1 article by Sarah Colson in today’s paper.
Regrettably, I have just one distinct memory from my school days of a child with Down syndrome. A group of upper grade schoolers were standing outside East Elementary School in Omak, Washington, waiting for the afternoon bus. A boy with Down syndrome – segregated from us during the school day – was outside, too.
It was cold enough for hats, and the boy had one that came to several points on top. Some of the kids realized they could get him to try and see the points on his hat without taking it off, and took some perverse pleasure in his repeated attempts to do the impossible and see the top of his head. I stood by, as did everyone else not directly involved, and I feel shame remembering the moment even today, close to 40 years later.
We are all responsible for our own actions, and my inaction in this case was indefensible. I should have spoken out against the cruelty, and my refusal to do so made me complicit in it. But our collective belief and attitude about developmental disabilities at that time in history also meant that this boy was, essentially, an “other.” This type of segregation and stigmatization has created and continues to create “classes” of people whom it then becomes acceptable to treat without the love and respect all human beings deserve.
Learning about Joanna Torgerson I felt, as I frequently do, a deep sense of thankfulness that society has made tremendous progress in including developmentally disabled people in the daily fabric of our lives. The benefits, of course, have been mutual, as the unbridled love and joy so many of these brothers and sisters share with the rest of us are priceless gifts.
Forty years ago, and even 30, an adult Joanna Torgerson probably would not have been out in the public eye much, and what a shame that would have been. She met two celebrities in Nashville Friday night. She’s out and about, living a rich life with friends and activities, shining her light in our community.
It’s good to reflect often on the changes we’ve witnessed over the past quarter century or so in this regard, especially if, like me, you sometimes feel as though today’s younger generation exhibits few redeeming qualities.
If we want to confirm our own suspicions that the world is going to hell in a hand basket and that the youth of today are the most entitled, shallow bunch ever, the Internet offers plenty of so-called evidence.
While I generally pass over such material while surfing the Internet, another shared class of viral videos almost always gets me clicking. They show developmentally disabled students, or students with autism, in wonderful, heartwarming yet everyday situations with their friends and peers.
An autistic basketball player comes off the bench and hits a half-dozen long three pointers to wild applause from everyone in the gym. A group of fifth-grade boys talk about their differently abled friend and how happy they are to have him as part of their circle. He and his mom respond in kind, his mother moved nearly to tears at what it’s meant to her and her son.
Everyone is a winner in these scenarios. We lost when, in the past, they weren’t part of our fabric. And “those darn kids” are often the ones showing us the way forward with grace and class.