When I first met Lisa, a national sign-language artist who knew more songs than my iPod contained, I looked forward to forming a friendship. But I was unsure of what to say around her. Lisa has Down syndrome, and initially I knew little about intellectual disabilities. Fortunately, Lisa and her mom, transparent teachers, have taught me a lot:
Start a Conversation
Begin by asking, “How are you?” You’ll be able to find out her communication level and see if she’s able to converse.
Does he have a favorite hobby? What movies or music does she enjoy? Does he have siblings? A job?
Be Careful with Touch
Some people like touch and some don’t. So start with a handshake, pat, or high five. Be sensitive, and avoid making someone feel uncomfortable.
As much as possible, talk to someone with a disability as you would any person her same age. If she’s a child, play games and laugh. If he’s an adult, treat him like one. Value her thoughts and be sensitive to feelings.
Watch Your Words
Above all else, avoid words such as “retard,” “stupid,” or “dumb.” Currently the preferred terminology is “intellectually disabled.” Whenever Lisa shares her story, she reminds people that she’s not disabled but “specially-able.” It’s a great perspective—and one that might make all of us better friends to the intellectually disabled.
—Amanda DeWitt (MA/MC, 2009)