Poor Blanche DuBois. Tennessee Williams' perpetually dependent anti- heroine's most renowned declaration, "I have always relied on the kindness of strangers," was employed in a column by political pundit George Will. Will, the loving father of an adult with Down syndrome, referenced this venerable line as an example of the form of eternal childlike dependence on others that many (including Will) still believe adults with intellectual disabilities must employ if they are to make their way in the world.
To say there is no kernel of truth to this is unrealistic; still, it is fascinating to hear him describe, without irony, the fluctuating adult-child duality his son signifies. Jon Will switches between adult and child roles, for example riding Washington's subway by himself to the Washington Nationals ballpark, where upon arrival he "enters the clubhouse ... and does a chore or two." George Will goes on to say, "People with Down syndrome must remain brave in order to navigate society's complexities. They have no choice but to be trusting because, with limited understanding ... ."
Will is an adoring parent who is helping his son create a fulfilling life, but it makes sense that the public perception of those with developmental disabilities is flavored by this sort of thinking.
To cite one of many local examples, Southland Christian Church's annual "Jesus Prom" is directed at adults considered to have disabilities. If the thought of a prom for adults who have been graduated from school for years seems unusual, it should. This event is one of the most important social events in the lives of many because it is fun and well organized. Still, might we not try to come to terms with its implications and do somewhat better by its name?
Recently the state Division of Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities has placed much emphasis on "employment," informing us that Kentuckians with developmental disabilities want to work. And this sounds fine, until you discover that the employment most often referred to consists of 1980s style "carved" jobs that are usually at the lowest ends of the manufacturing and fast-food industries, where few real supports for employees exist.
Who is to say that the current employment push won't work? It may. If so, we must pay attention to the expectations we hold for others. If they are low, if they reflect prejudice and a disregard for the potential of those with intellectual disabilities, then we have no real chance here.
Recently, quite accidentally, I noticed a piece by well-known artist Mike Goodlett in an exhibit at M.S. Rezny Studio & Gallery. Black Curtain After Beverly Baker is a dense drawing intended as homage to Baker's work.
I came across Baker, an artist with Down syndrome, 15 years ago as she was seated at a table in a "sheltered workshop" creating the type of art that eventually would lead her to an international career. According to her mother, not one social services professional ever mentioned Baker's artwork over the years she attended such programs.
Many who are considered to have intellectual disabilities are regarded as something less than fully realized adults; Baker's intellectually acute work discounts this prejudice.
Moving forward means expecting more from those with intellectual disabilities and those of us in human services who provide support.