Give Me a Break: When to Cut People with Disabilities a Little Slack

Hello, readers,

I’m back for another post. Yes, it’s late. No, I’m not doing this because I think the world will end tomorrow (though if it did, this blog would probably be the last thing on my mind). I’ve simply been writing all day and needed a long break before delving into another project. In fact, that’s what tonight’s post is about: when it’s okay to give people with disabilities a break.

What do I mean by that? Well, maybe it would help if I explained where I got the idea for this post. I am a huge, unashamed fan of Hallmark films. Now, as a writer, I’ll admit, sometimes I think their plots are flimsy. But I watch them, and I own several of the ones I think are really good on DVD. Of course, ’tis the season for Hallmark to air bookoos of Christmas movies, all day. Well, the other day, I stumbled on one called A Dog Named Christmas. I had missed part of it, so later, I looked up the film on YouTube.

If you’re not familiar with the film, it’s based on a novel by Greg Kincaid. The plot concerns Todd, a twenty-year-old young man with an intellectual disability, living on a farm with his parents. One day before Christmas, Todd, who loves and is very good with animals, hears a radio spot about a local program in which volunteers can take home a dog from the local shelter for the holidays. Intrigued and eager, he begs his parents to do it. Of course, the dog they end up with–who is unnamed when Todd chooses him and brings him home–is christened Christmas, and the two bond. Todd’s mom loves having Christmas around, as do his visiting siblings and their families. Even Dad, who was skeptical at best because of two beloved dogs he lost–one as a young man and one as a soldier in Vietnam (the dog had become the platoon mascot of sorts)–learns to enjoy Christmas, too. It’s a great movie, and I don’t have “criticisms” of it in the classic sense. It did, however, inspire me to ask some questions about how we approach disability, and write about them.

My biggest question came from Todd’s parents’ reaction to him getting a dog for Christmas. Dad, especially, raised this question with his attitude. He makes Todd promise, before even thinking about saying yes, that he will agree to take the dog back to the shelter on December 26th without any complaint, out of an assumption that his tender-hearted son would have a breakdown otherwise. He also makes Todd promise to keep up with his farm chores, and Mom gets in on the act by insisting the naturally messy Todd get his room “really clean” first.

Now, in general, I have no problem with this. It is natural to, if you have children begging for a pet, exact some sort of reasonable agreement from them before getting one. But–you know where I’m going, don’t you? Todd’s chronological age was 20. He was a young man, as his mom–and he himself–said in the movie. A 20-year-old man should not have to “earn” a pet by doing work. Now, I understand the need to teach and reinforce responsibility, but I believe there are better ways to do it than dumbing down the age of your adult child due to an intellectual disability, and making him or her earn what any other person would probably just go out and get. Why? Because the unspoken other half of an agreement like that is, “If you don’t do what I say, you can’t have what you want, even if you need it or want it very much, and I don’t care if you are a ‘young adult.’ In my eyes, you are a perpetual child.”

Speaking of “perpetual child,” let’s examine the other half of Dad’s agreement with Todd: give up the dog on the 26th as the shelter wants, without complaint. (In other words, with total compliance). Now again, on some level, I totally understand this. No one wants to see anyone of any age make an emotional scene in public; it makes people uncomfortable. And if you have entered into a binding agreement with a place of business, like an animal shelter, you need to keep it, your own feelings aside. And because Todd did happen to be, as I said, an animal-lover and a tender-hearted individual, his dad had some reason for concern. But one, even if emotional displays are not “socially appropriate” (remember yesterday?) in cases like Todd’s, I believe compassionate people could make some sort of allowance if they needed to. Two, I take issue with the dad’s insistence on total compliance, partially because of my feelings about that word and my feelings about the expectation that people with disabilities never complain, and partially for a reason I’ll get to in a minute. Three, what on earth is wrong with a person with a disability’s desire to keep a pet (even one that belongs to a shelter, where the expectation was that you’d bond with and keep the animal after completing the Christmas program, anyway)? I guess the argument is, “They’re not responsible enough for pets,” but that brings up the idea–has the person with a disability in your life ever been given significant responsibilities? (In the case of Todd, for example, I don’t think that argument would stand up because he had proven responsibility when it came to farm chores, painting, and yes, cleaning that room).

Here’s the other reason I take issue with Todd’s father’s attitude, and why I’m questioning what is so bad about giving people with disabilities a “break.” Dad’s motives, as he explains them, were to teach Todd to react to the world like an adult. And as an adult myself, I can understand that. The world is full of disappointments, and as much as we want to, we can’t always have we want or give vent to emotions. If people without disabilities need to learn that, so do people with them. But the problem is that at times, as with physical things, people with disabilities, particularly ones like Todd’s, may need “modifications” to that. Let’s stay with Todd’s example. Yes, Dad was right to remind Todd that Christmas (the dog) had to go back to the shelter on the 26th because that was the understanding with the shelter. But when he saw his son bonding with Christmas, he became even more insistent, citing Todd’s need to be “an adult” about the whole thing. Well, number one, as we find out late in the film, Dad’s attitude has less to do with teaching Todd anything than it has to do with him–he was hurt when he lost his dogs and refuses to go through that again, vicariously, or let his son go through it. But number two: acting like an adult does not always mean giving up something or someone you love to “prove” you can without an emotional breakdown. And yes, Todd would have lost Christmas eventually, because dogs, like all living things, die. But I think it would be more “adult” for him to bond with Christmas–experience real friendship–and then, when it was time according to the Power that be, go through the grieving process in his own way and time. Setting up situations for a young adult with a disability to “prove” how adult they can be smacks of “behavior goals” and the grown-up version of IEPs.

So, what am I saying? In summary, I am saying that, like everyone else, people with disabilities need to be allowed to grow up, and need to be treated like adults. But that should not come at the expense of who they are, and allowing them to, in certain situations, go at their own pace into adulthood. Adulthood is not an IEP goal. It is a state of being that you enter at 18 (or 21, whatever you consider the legal age to be of the two), and you spend the rest of your life learning to live in it. In fact, many times, you may still act like a teenager or a kid. And you know something? That’s okay. That’s natural.

So, in the spirit of Christmas–which is, at its core, the spirit of empathy, mercy, and warmth–stop seeing people with disabilities as a list of neverending “adulthood goals” to check off. Give them a break.

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