A Little More: To ask, or not to ask
The man at the library, walking with 2 canes, drags his thin, weak legs behind him up to the water fountain, and one of my boys asks, "What's wrong with him?"
I lift my finger to my mouth in the universal sign for "shhhh." All 3 of my children look at me, confused. They don't understand why I don't want to talk about it--we usually talk about everything, a running dialog on the state of the day, like watching a DVD with the comments turned on, the director and the writers and the actors all adding in their 2 cents.
Just today, we'd discussed why grass is green (and a word that begins with P and sounds like "eff", photosynthesis!) and the new, Harry Potter-esque mural painted on the library wall ("Creepy!" said 5-year-old Bennett; "Cool!" said 9-year-old Carter), so my reluctance to talk about the man using canes stood out simply because of its difference.
Just like the man, himself. And the thing is, I don't know why I was reluctant to talk about it.
Here is a man with a story to tell. One he may, or may not feel like discussing at the water fountain with me and 3 little boys of varying ages and abilities. But how he talks about his life, and how he feels about it, is something I'll never know. I won't know because I didn't have the right words to use to ask.
I've written before about wishing there were a secret handshake for people who love children and adults with Down syndrome. A way of recognizing each other in a crowd--a way of saying hello, without actually having to speak. I'm thinking here of motorcyclists flashing their headlights as they pass each other; a little gesture that announces, I see you.
My son Avery's speech therapist, Molly, would be proud of me for these thoughts. Very early into our sessions, she began trying to explain the concept of Total Communication. What she taught me was that language is only one of the tools we use to communicate with each other. There's also how you say the words--the tone you use, its timbre and pitch. And there's what you choose not to say, which often speaks volumes.
You might be tempted, as I was, to think of the '80s concept of body language, and if you're recalling those cheesy come-on lines ("I can tell by the flip of your hair that you're into me...") you wouldn't be too far off. So Molly worked at teaching me to see the complexities in everyday speech and language; and I worked at breaking down those sequences into their smallest parts, to better teach Avery.
As it happens, even the smallest parts of communication are complicated. Take, for instance, a smile: is it happy, or sneaky? Is it smiling-through-the-tears, or shy? Malicious? Or simply joyful?
Which brings me back to the man at the water fountain in the library--sometimes communicating with each other can be a very tricky endeavor. Later, after the kids and I had left the library and everyone was buckled in the car, I tried to explain, and failed miserably.
I began with a story about a man with one blue finger, and I tried to show how his finger was normal to him; something he may, or may not want to talk about. He might want to have a little discussion about it, or he might want to go about his day, drinking a cool arc of water from the fountain.
And then I realized that my story, and my reaction to the man, was based on the assumption that he would feel bad about his legs, and not want to have attention drawn to them. I don't know this to be true. And I don't know if not talking about disability is any better than talking about it.
When people ask me about Avery, most of the time I'm happy to share what I know about Down syndrome. I'd rather people hear it from us, than make assumptions. I see it as a chance to encourage right-thinking, as opposed to wrong-thinking.
But what is right-thinking, in this case? I suspect the answer is as varied as the 50 million Americans living with disability. In this instance, I take my cues from Total Communication--the man kept his back to us, his eyes down. He didn't engage the boys or me in any way; he seemed busy and intent, a person not interested in casual conversation. And therein lies the key: seeing the person as well as the disability. It's what I wish for Avery--and what I wish for us all.