I’m a special education teacher. The students I work with have DD (Developmental Disabilities). This means they have what used called mental retardation. I prefer the term intellectual disability. Either way my students have a difficult time reasoning abstractly and do very well at repetitive, physical tasks like cleaning tables or stuffing envelopes.
I’ve just returned from maternity leave and am teaching a class of nine secondary students (ages 14-21). Everyone in my class has DD – actually, every student in my school has DD, there are over 100 secondary students with DD in my school. Many have ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) and physical needs too.
Recently I was in our school’s cafeteria at lunch time. The place was hopping – high school girls giggled and looked at high school boys, high school boys showed off for high school girls. Some of the girls showed me their new haircuts or new clothes. Some of the boys talked about the latest technology.
It was just like any other high school cafeteria in the world, except everyone has DD.
I was standing back and watching the lunch room action unfold. A former student – with ASD! – recognised me and came up to say hi. Well, he actually just said my name, and then walked in a circle around me. But I was thrilled that he recognised me before I recognised him – so much for the ‘face blindness’ of ASD.
Every lunch room has its ‘popular crowd,’ and this was no exception. I watched a young man with perfectly coiffed long blonde hair and wearing a trendy white shirt wrap his arms around a young lady with a stylish bob. They were clearly in love. The young man high-fived friends and waved at teachers.
This charismatic young man worked the room, exuding ‘cool’ and acknowledging acquaintances; all while holding his lady friend close. He looked old enough to graduate soon. I wondered if they’d get married and get an apartment together. Some of our students do.
A lunchroom supervisor stood beside me, and we watched the students together. Typical high school cafeteria drama – girls squealed as they raced to greet each other as long lost friends (who had only seen each other an hour or so before). Young men flexed their muscles – literally and figuratively.
The young blonde man and his lady friend caught the supervisor’s eye. She pointed at the couple as they sauntered around the room.
“But for that extra chromosome, he would be like Sean Cassidy.”
I was speechless. Yes, the young man had Down Syndrome, and the facial features associated with it. So did his lady friend. So what?
The lunch room supervisor mistook my silence for misunderstanding. “I mean he’s like Justin Beiber. Celebrity.”
But for that extra chromosome, he would be …
Stunned speechless, I was pitched down my own rabbit hole of genetic quirks and chromosomal abnormalities. Lost in thought, and feeling like I’d just been punched in the stomach, I quickly made an excuse and left.
I haven’t confronted her over the phrase. I know she means well, and thought it was a compliment, although in a backhanded way. I’m glad I didn’t say anything at the time. If anyone said that about my own kids I’d lose it – what do you mean they’re not perfect?
I wondered what the young man’s parents would say. Their son was clearly popular, successful and soon graduating high school. On top of his game, as they say.
I don’t think ‘face blindness’ only happens to people who have Autism. In this case you can’t see the person because the face gets in the way. Face blindness happens to all of us – lunch room supervisors included.