Can we get retarded for a second?
Okay, that was crass (yes, I do realize how offensive that word is and no, it is not a part of my every day vocabulary, but it’s the chorus of the song I quoted above and I’m trying to build a theme, here, so give me a break and take your complaints to the Black Eyed Peas) but seriously, I really do want to talk about mentally handicapped people. I really want to ask a tough question and I want someone to answer me honestly.
Here’s the thing: mentally challenged people, for the most part, make me happy. Unlike some folks, I’m not uncomfortable around them, I don’t pity them, they don’t make me sad about the unfairness of life, blah blah blah. They make me smile. I like them. Maybe it’s their implied innocence that I find so charming? Or the fact that they process things at such a basic level, and honesty is one of my favorite qualities? I’m not sure what it is about them that I find so enjoyable, but I like being around them.
The other day, I met a handicapped kid, maybe 19 years old, who is employed by one of the hospitals I work for, running the office supply “store” (a supply closet, really, but for the entire hospital). He was hired through a regional program that helps mentally challenged people find jobs. My assignment was to take a photo of him for an employee newsletter story about the store. He was cute. It was fun. The next day, I saw him at a different hospital within my system–apparently, he had only been training at the first hospital so that he could run the second hospital’s store all on his own. When I saw him the second day in a row, he was wearing the same outfit (bright red polo shirt, high-waisted pants with a belt), his hair looked the same and he had the same expression on his face (vague boredom). He did not wave at me, nor did we greet each other–I highly doubt he remembered me. But I remembered him, and seeing him made me happy. Good for him, running a new store by himself! I thought. I hope he likes his job. Maybe I should go in there and buy something, to give him a customer.
One of the greatest moments of my life, no joke, happened when Adam and I were volunteering with the Minnesota Special Olympics. We were stacking up chairs at the end of the day when an athlete, maybe 15 years old, walked by with his family. He patted my on the back, looked at me earnestly and said, “You’re doing a great job.” I actually started crying (though I hid it well), because how fricking amazing is it for a Special Olympian to take time from his day to tell me, a random volunteer, that I’m doing a great job?! The heart in that kid is two sizes too big!
So, here’s my question: is my attitude patronizing? Am I being disrespectful to handicapped people by taking joy in their presence? Is that, like, reverse discrimination, somehow? Is it a sort of prejudice? If the Special Olympian who thanked me had been a “regular” Olympian instead, would his comment have meant as much to me–and if not, is that disrespectful? Is it unfair for me to make a blanket statement like “Mentally handicapped people make me happy,” in the same way that it’s inappropriate to say things like, “Asians are good at math” or “All black people can dance”?
I honestly don’t know! And it’s distressing! The last thing I want is to be a bigoted, biased person. Although, if you’re prejudiced in favor of something (instead of against it), how could that be a bad thing? Still, it feels weird to admit that for the most part, mentally handicapped people make me happy — not because of what they do or say, but because of who they are– for reasons I don’t fully understand.
Any guidance on this matter would be much appreciated. Trolls need not apply–I don’t need your lectures or your tsk-tsking. I’m being honest, here, and pouring out my heart in the hope that someone can help me understand it.
Somewhat-related note: here’s this, which I find totally amazing.