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September 21, 2013

It is a sad fact that we do not hesitate to judge each other. This usually happens quickly and with little or no evidence to support our conclusions. We form unfounded opinions based on nothing more than appearance, the way someone moves or the way they talk. None of those things actually tell us anything important about the person, and yet we accept or reject individuals constantly based on our immediate response to their physical presence. It is completely unfair to the people we are so quick to judge, and we also cheat ourselves out of the opportunity to get to know many interesting people who could eventually become very important in our lives.

This is never truer than when it comes to the way the public sometimes reacts to individuals with intellectual challenges. Thankfully there are many people who willingly accept those whose appearance or behavior may seem different in some way. They are tolerant and respectful, and they do not judge those they do not know. This is how it should be. Unfortunately, there are others who are not so enlightened. They immediately decide they want nothing to do with a person they perceive as being different.

Each one of us believes that we are important and that we have something unique to offer to the world, and we are right. Whatever our physical appearance may be, whether we struggle to express ourselves or if we are restricted in our ability to be active, we are still convinced that we matter, that we are relevant and that we are irreplaceable. But for some reason there are those who do not believe that is true for people with developmental disabilities. Because their appearance, lack of social skills or mobility issues can make them stand out from the crowd, they are shunned by those who will not make the effort to get to know them as a person.

For many people, being in the presence of someone with an intellectual challenge makes them rush to judgment based on nothing more than a brief exchange that does not allow them the opportunity to actually interact with that individual on a meaningful level.

An example would be encountering a young adult with Down syndrome who is dealing with significant hearing loss which makes it difficult for him to control the volume of his voice. Let’s suppose that Robert goes to a nice restaurant with his mother. There are about 50 other people dining. After being seated, he becomes very excited as he looks over all the choices on the menu. His voice rises to a level that draws the attention of those at surrounding tables. His mother does her best to remind him that they are inside in a public place and therefore he should lower his voice, but it is no use. Robert is so happy to be eating out that her admonitions go unheeded.

In this case there would probably be a variety of reactions from the other diners. Some would feel uneasy and wish that the host had seated him farther away. Some, without even realizing it, would stare at his table and wonder just what exactly is “wrong with him”. Others might feel sympathy for his mother because she “has the burden of caring for him her whole life”. In each case they would have formed an opinion about Robert without knowing anything about him as a person.

For those who felt uncomfortable in the restaurant and rushed to judgment, it would benefit them to stop and carefully consider their inappropriate reactions. What made them feel the way they did?  Was it unfamiliarity? Have they never been around a person with Down syndrome? Do they not personally know anyone with a developmental disability? Or is it something more unpleasant? Perhaps they actually believe that “people like that” should not be allowed in a public place. Maybe they think that Robert is not their equal and that he should stay around “his own kind”. Heartbreakingly, there could even be some who think that, because Robert had Down syndrome, he should not have been allowed to be born.

Fortunately, there would be others in the restaurant that would see a person who was obviously overjoyed to be dining out. They would see his unrestrained excitement over the available food choices. They would see someone who was loved by a caring parent and who returned that affection without hesitation. They would see two people who were happy to be out of the house and enjoying each other’s company. They might wonder if they were there to celebrate a special occasion such as a birthday. They would avoid jumping to conclusions about Robert as a person, and they would simply accept the situation for what it was; two human beings engaging in one of the normal activities of society that we all enjoy.

Judgment is wrong because it hurts both the innocent person it’s directed at and also the person who engages in such limited and shallow thinking. When we judge someone who has an intellectual challenge, without really knowing them, it serves no worthwhile purpose. It only reinforces stereotypes that people have fought against all their lives, while adding insensitivity and intolerance to the world. This type of judgment is morally unjust because it creates barriers to acceptance for those who have done nothing to deserve such treatment.

On the other hand, when you meet someone who has a developmental disability they are usually more than willing to accept you just the way you are. They are far less likely to judge you on a superficial level, and most of the time they see you as a potential friend. The world would be a far more compassionate place if we all took this approach with everyone we encounter on a daily basis. We can learn a great deal from the very people we are so quick to label, if we will just keep an open mind and not form opinions until we get to know them as a person.

But for those that are inclined to judge individuals like Robert, they would do well to remember that at any moment they could have a serious accident or medical crisis that could leave them struggling with a life altering intellectual challenge.

How would it feel when they realized they were now being unfairly judged?