As human beings we have an overwhelming desire to be accepted. We want others to feel comfortable around us so that we can enjoy inclusion in all the areas of life that we believe are important. We each do our best to fit in and to not stand out in a way that draws negative attention to ourselves. Every one of us has a basic need to be valued and respected for who we are.
However, we all experience moments in our lives when we do not receive acceptance. In such situations we often try to convince ourselves that it doesn’t matter what people think of us, but that is not true. When it comes to how we are viewed by our peers, we actually care deeply about the opinions of others. Everyone wants to be seen in the best possible light. We want people to have a favorable impression of us.
It is exactly the same for individuals with developmental disabilities. They also want to be acknowledged and appreciated. But it can be quite difficult for someone to believe that they deserve to be accepted when they’ve been told they are different, and they have been made to feel less.
If a person with an intellectual challenge is continually treated as if their life doesn’t matter, the rejection they experience can begin to make them believe they are not worthy of acceptance. This can lead to feelings of loneliness, and even isolation from the community. As their frustration grows their behavior can change, and in desperation they may attempt to be noticed in ways that are not socially approved. Being ignored by their peers can have a negative impact on their overall mental health.
Usually the main reason someone refuses to accept another person is because they believe that individual is not like them. In some way they seem different and that alone is enough to label them as unacceptable. People with developmental disabilities know this line of thinking all too well. When someone refuses to accept you because you are nonverbal, because you have difficulty controlling your muscles, because you learn at a slower rate, because you cannot always manage your emotions or because of your physical characteristics, it is wrong. A human being cannot help the fact that they live with particular challenges, any more than a person can choose their gender or ethnicity.
Ironically it is frequently the case that those who have faced rejection themselves become the most accepting of others. Because they know firsthand how it feels to be marginalized, they go out of their way not to treat anyone else the way they’ve been treated. They know from personal experience how unfair it can be when others refuse to accept you for reasons that you have no control over. People with intellectual challenges are frequently willing to accept others without hesitation, even though they do not receive the same treatment in return.
Fortunately when the excuses for not accepting someone with a developmental disability are broken down, it becomes obvious that what we might initially think are legitimate reasons actually have no validity at all. None of the issues listed above tell us anything about what kind of person they are. They do not describe their personality or give clues to their honesty or integrity. They do not provide any evidence concerning their capacity for friendship or their joy for life. They do not convey their kindness or their compassion. And they certainly do not define their humanity.
For people with intellectual challenges, acceptance is crucial to having a healthy sense of self-worth. It gives them confidence and builds their self-esteem by making them feel valued and appreciated. It lets them know that they matter to others, and it provides the opportunity to have a positive impact in life.
That kind of acceptance can be shown through the touch of one person’s hand on another or with a pat on the back. It can be conveyed through a smile or a kind word. It can even be communicated by simply choosing to be with the person, in the moment, giving them your undivided attention. Almost any action or gesture that lifts another person up is a way of letting them know that you accept them as someone who is neither inferior nor superior but equal.
But for acceptance to occur, we must stop being judgmental and resist the temptation to jump to conclusions without the facts. We have to be willing to take the time to actually get to know someone. It is only when we open our hearts and minds to the realization that we are all the same that we truly learn to accept others. If we will acknowledge the beauty and power of diversity we will begin to understand that every person, no matter what particular issues or challenges they live with, is worthy of acceptance.
The following real life example illustrates how important it is for a person to be accepted for who they are.
Recently I was sorting through some old files in my office, and I opened up one for a woman with a developmental disability who left us many years ago when she moved out of state. In a meeting she had been asked this question: “What is the one thing you would like to do most in your life?” A typical response would be taking an exciting vacation or getting to meet someone famous, but her answer was touching. Her simple reply was, “Go on my first date.” This woman was in her sixties.
Sadly the lack of acceptance she had endured throughout her life had denied her the personal social interaction that most of us take for granted.