I was about nine. Maybe younger, maybe older. I can’t quite remember. But let’s say I was old enough to know better and young enough to be excused.
His name was John. John loved to skate at the rink where I was training as a competitive figure skater. It was a private club. Some thought it was a little snooty. I didn’t know about that. I did know something was wrong with John.
Wrong. Maybe that’s not a fair word. He was different.
John showed up regularly for the general skate sessions. I skated on those as well as the free skate sessions, which were exclusive to competitors. General skate was for a mish mash, skaters like me along with men and women my parents’ age. And there was John.
He seemed more like a child than the adult he was. He was awkward, off balance both physically and mentally. He was not bad looking but his hair was always greasy and his large glasses always slipping perilously low on his nose. He smelled like chicken soup every time he swooped past. He'd swing one leg back to do a spiral, not quite straight enough, not quite high enough, but it didn’t seem to bother him. Why did it bother us?
We all knew something was not right. Was he developmentally disabled? Was he in an accident? I don’t think I ever knew. But he was always friendly. He’d smile and sometimes try to talk to you.
I didn’t want to be mean but I kept my distance and averted his gaze. Like we all did. Maybe what he had would rub off. Maybe he’d say something we wouldn’t know how to respond to. Maybe we’d be trapped if we spoke back. The truth is, he scared us.
As I said, I was old enough to know he was different but young enough to be excused for being uncomfortable. I think back now and hope I was never mean to him, never ran away or laughed at him in front of his face.
Years later in college one of my girlfriends actually gasped in horror when a guy said something to her at a party. He’d been in an accident. His body and facial expressions were twisted like a surreal painting. His utterances were grunts.
I was taken aback, too, but mostly hated my friend in that moment for her selfish reaction. You see, the guy may have looked as if his brain was as warped as his body but it wasn’t. He saw the world — and her response — just as we did. Full on clarity. I’ve always been haunted by that. How would I feel to see someone look at me in horror?
Over the years, I have met and known many more people with disabilities — mental, emotional and physical. Yes, they can scare us. Usually, I think, we fear being like them more than being near them. What is it? Is it just a lack of understanding and education? We seem to have surmounted that hurtle when it comes to people with Down syndrome. Why can’t it be that way for everyone?
I was reminded of this again by a TV movie the other night about a man who had Tourette syndrome, which causes uncontrollable movements like ticks or sounds like grunts and even swearing. I’ve made jokes about this. But it’s wrong. Sure, sometimes it's okay to laugh or make fun as a way to cope. But not when it's mean, or breeds intolerance. That's as wrong as it would be to openly mock or laugh at a person with Down syndrome or autism.
I have watched people laugh at, yell at and veer away from those with mental illness. I know people with tremors so bad they’ve been mistaken for being drunk.
Maybe rather than trying to fix all these people as if they have the problem — because some cannot be fixed — we need to change our attitude about them.
Because I can think of nothing worse than being born with or suffering from something that makes you different than to be ostracized for it.
If we just adopt a new normal then no one is really different.
I’m glad I knew John. I doubt he had something that could be fixed. And I hope today, if he is still around, that he lives in a more understanding world. I know I’d take the time to talk to him.