by: Nick Savarese
I was in line at the grocery store the other day and had what I later came to realize was a moment of pure acceptance. It occurred when I encountered a family that included a child with an intellectual disability. Typically, as a long-time advocate for people with disabilities, I will go out of my way to speak with the individual and then try to use some sort of wink or nod or jedi-mind-trick on the parents to let them know that I am “cool” with the whole “disability” thing. This time, for whatever reason, I didn’t feel like interacting with the family. I just wanted to buy my milk and eggs and get out of there. So I did just that, practically ignoring the family, and going on my way.
So how does ignoring people qualify as “pure acceptance”, you ask? Well I treated the individual and his family completely the same as I would any other group in that situation. I didn’t discriminate against them but I did not give them any special treatment either, which is where the true acceptance lies.
The way I see it, my behavior in the grocery store represents Stage 3 (out of 3) of my way-too-oversimplified evaluation of disability acceptance in mainstream United States culture. Let’s quickly go through these 3 phases (again I reiterate there are most likely many more phases and more grey areas but for the purpose of simplicity I’ve listed these 3):
Stage 1: Disgust, Fear, Discrimination: Some years ago (and perhaps a small percentage of the time nowadays), a person may have encountered an individual with an intellectual disability and wondered why they were even in the same store. People might be disgusted. The thought was that people with intellectual disabilities should be institutionalized and separated from society, certainly not able to shop, eat, and go to school with the rest of “us”. Thankfully most people in the United States have moved on from this stage entirely.
Stage 2: Well-intentioned But Not Equal Acceptance: This represents my typical stage (and probably the majority of us), where I go out of my way in the store to be extra-kind to someone with an intellectual disability as well as their family. In thinking about it, there may sometimes be a kind of under-lying pity in this stage. Like, “Oh that poor family must be going through so much caring for that poor disabled child, so I’ll be extra nice to them”. Admittedly, this isn’t an awful stage but my educated hunch is that individuals with intellectual disabilities and their families would prefer a less patronizing approach.
Stage 3: Pure Acceptance: I see you at the grocery store and your disability is not a factor in my thought process at all. I may not treat you extra special, but I do not pity you or your family. I will respect you because you are a fellow human being, entirely equal to me.
Don’t get me wrong. We need a whole lot more of Stage 2 before we get to Stage 3. We need to continuously find ways to seek out individuals with intellectual disabilities as well as their families and engage, support, and include them. This needs to be done both organizationally (through nonprofits, government, private/public partnerships) as well as individually, by chatting at the grocery store. The end goal though, is an organic acceptance and inclusion that involves no targeted or specialized treatment whatsoever.
Nick Savarese is the Director of Advancement at Special Olympics Massachusetts, raising funds to create athletic opportunities for individuals with and without intellectual disabilities. He has spent his entire career as an advocate for people with disabilities, including founding Sky’s the Limit, a Colorado-based nonprofit offering inclusive social and recreational opportunities.