Reflections on Out of My Mind: My Summer Lesson of Respect

So I read this middle grade/YA book about an 11-year-old girl named Melody who has a severe case of cerebral palsy. She basically cannot physically move on her own. And she cannot speak. But she is very intelligent, with a photogenic memory. The problem is most people do not know this, so they talk down to her. It reminds me of two special needs people I had in my life.

My first one I met during a summer class when I was about 20. One of our requirements was volunteering at our local Industries, which was a place that employed adults with special needs who were unable to work elsewhere. The area I was assisting in was where the clients would fit plastic pegs into rubber tubing.

I remember feeling like my supervisor was not overly thrilled with her job. She was just there for the paycheck, as small as that pittance was. She took me around to explain what the clients were doing, how I could help them, and then to introduce me to a few particular individuals.

David is one who stood out. He was a very talkative and happy young man with Down syndrome who very quickly dubbed me his girlfriend and said we were going to get married. Alas, I was informed that he was quite the ladies’ man. He was a lot of fun.

And then we began to approach one of the last tables. “Make sure you give a wide berth to this one. This is Annette. She is mean. She will whip you with her tube if you get too close.”

A young woman with Down syndrome and a big bow in her hair, reminding me of Annette Funicello, turned to look at us and just glared. Nevertheless, I still smiled at her and said hi. Every day that I was there, I greeted her with a smile, even though she would just narrow her eyes at me.

On my last day there, I was saying my goodbyes to everyone. David was still insisting I was his girlfriend. And then suddenly, Annette approached me. The whole staff immediately tensed up, apparently concerned she was going to hurt me or something. Instead, she handed me her bow and pointed to her head. She wanted me to do her hair before I left.

That supervisor from my first day watched the exchange in awe. “She never lets anyone touch her bow. She must really like you. What did you do?”

I just looked at her and said, “I treated her like a normal person and was nice to her every day.”

I could tell I had struck a nerve and I was glad.

Lesson here – just because someone has special needs, they are not less of a person. Treat them with respect and you will earn it back.

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