What we can learn from those with “special needs”

As an aspiring special education teacher, I wanted to learn how to interact with kids with more profound developmental disabilities. I found KEEN, a nonprofit that pairs volunteers with special needs participants (kids and young adults) in a time of free play. I started two weeks ago; as it turns out, there wasn’t much to learn at all — though there was much to unlearn.

My buddy, Charles, is an African-American male in his 20s. He was born with Down syndrome. Because of his intellectual disability, he behaves like a young child. Charles often repeats himself, his favorite lines being “How you doing?” and “What color is this?” Charles is also incredibly friendly, and would shake hands with anyone he meets. Sometimes, he might pick up your hand and sniff it (it’s his way of showing affection), which tends to startle people meeting him for the first time. He loves shooting hoops, which I happen to be terrible at, and thankfully doesn’t bother him.

When I first met Charles, I was keenly aware that under “normal” circumstances, we would unlikely be friends. Charles and I have close to nothing in common — not gender, not race, not age, not occupation, not skills, not interests. But it quickly became so clear to me that we have one very important thing in common — we’re both God’s children.

There is unparalleled beauty in simple interactions. When I talk to Charles and other participants at KEEN, there is absolutely no pretense. There’s no need to be smart, or witty, or funny, or interesting. No judgment, no expectations. Simply put, these are interactions in the purest form. No one’s trying to impress anybody, and no one’s trying to gain anything from anybody. I felt freedom.

Occasionally, I take a step back to just marvel at what’s going on in this basketball court, and I realize that this is an oasis in a clockwork society that expects so much of every individual.

One time, Charles wanted to take a walk outside of the basketball court, so I took his hand and we ventured out for 5 minutes, during which we ran into a few college students. Charles being Charles, promptly walked up to them and asked for all their names, before shaking and sniffing their hands. I was enraged by the grimaces and general discomfort plastered all over their faces. That was the moment I realized the extent to which we’ve created a society so hostile to those who are “different”. It’s no surprise that we’re seeing more and more “wrongful birth” lawsuits filed by parents who declare that they would have aborted their baby if they’d known he/she would be different. And then we have the likes of Richard Dawkins who’d go so far as to say that “immoral” not to abort unborn babies with Down Syndrome.

I, too, am guilty of perpetuating an elitist, ableist world. For four years, I immersed myself in the intellectual bubble that is The University of Chicago. There, I learned life-changing critical thinking skills that I am incredibly thankful for. Unfortunately, it also instilled in me a poisonous pride in my ability to engage in “intellectual” conversations, and hence a preference for a certain type of interaction. It took a major bout of depression that robbed me of many of my cognitive abilities for me to be humbled once more.

I love the work organizations like KEEN does, but it saddens me that we actually need to recruit volunteers to fulfill social and emotional needs that wonderful people like Charles are often deprived of.

I encourage you to try spending some time with people like Charles. They will always teach and remind us about what it means to be fellow human beings, and it will be good for our souls.

IMG_6251 Charles gave me a slip of paper with his name on it so I wouldn’t forget him over the course of the week.

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. “Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
(Matthew 18:1-4)


Also published on The Mighty.



26 thoughts on “What we can learn from those with “special needs”

  1. I think people react out of “fear” and discomfort for the unknown. I also think people file lawsuits to help care for the high cost of caring for their children, especially if your child needs equipment, adaptable home, therapies, etc… I love the organization KEEN. We need more of them. Once you get people into the community who get to know our kids and young adults, you will see the comfort zone change. Not for everyone, but for most, I hope

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think we are at our best when we are being true to our self; as you wrote, “There’s no need to be smart, or witty, or funny, or interesting. No judgment, no expectations.” In my opinion, this is our highest self! Isn’t it ironic that it sometimes takes interactions with people with differing abilities to bring this side out in us?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It is nice to know that such an organization and such a willing volunteer exist. The hardest thing, as my son heads into adulthood, is wondering what he will do all day when he doesn’t have school anymore. Will he only have us to spend time with? Because we won’t live forever. And if not us, will there be people we trust to guide him, and just enjoy his brand of weirdness? It’s scary as a parent.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Julie,

      I was just talking about this very issue with my colleague recently. It’s a scary and sad thought to me, too, so I can only imagine how you must feel as his mother. I definitely want to do more research into this, but from the little that I know right now, there are nonprofit organizations out there that work to help people like your son become as independent as possible. In Chicago, there’s at least one called Esperanza Community. Their mission: “Esperanza Community Services provides individualized therapeutic and educational programs to help children and adults with mild, moderate, and severe developmental disabilities (including autism) as well as behavior needs be as independent as possible. ” Where do you live?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh I’m up in South Dakota. My community does have a program for developmentally disabled people, it’s just geared more toward those with Down’s Syndrome and TBI’s and more severely disabled adults. They’re not really prepared for those on the spectrum who are sort of in the middle–that struggle some socially, but can also read and communicate well. It’s kind of a transitional time I guess, as more and more autistic people become adults and we see fewer kids with Down’s and birth injuries.


  4. Thank you for sharing this. My husband and I are fortunate to have a man who helps us with odd jobs around our little farm. He is mentally disabled as a result of an accident (he told me he accidentally shot himself in the head). He is an absolute honey; interactions with him are just as you describe – uncomplicated and absolutely honest. He is fortunate to be able to live with his parents and, through them, can engage with the community … It makes me sad that so many people like this are pushed away out of sight because they make “normal” people feel uncomfortable.


  5. Loved this post. My husband is a special education teacher at the high school level. He is an advocate for the disabled, and I too share your anger when I see others treat the disabled with disdain. Lest they forget, but for the grace of God go I….thanks for sharing!


  6. Hey Karen what’s up. Love this post and the discovery you’re making of the world. I completely agree with you on the intellectual isolation we experience…as we develop our intellectual abilities. I guess that’s just one of the things that come with academic learning.

    Question about your worldview. Do you think that every one of the “different”, i.e. disabled people have a purpose? As in do they know their purpose? I think fundamentally people are similar in that they all desire similar things…and I wonder if they too have similar goals in life.

    I ask because I don’t like to view people as “different” simply because they have different abilities and backgrounds. Also, some normal people might refer to the disabled almost as people who exist as a reminder of how blessed they themselves are…that’s also kind of messed up. It’s like the zoo complex…


  7. This is a timely message for me. I have to admit that it took accepting my own differences and the rejection I experienced from some to begin to open my heart to those who were born with physical or mental disabilities, as well as those whose infirmities of life have put them in a similar position. I also admit that I am work in progress. Some are still difficult for me to handle. I trust that the Lord will continue to do a good work in me regarding this.
    In my church, we have Calvin. If you project Charles 40-50 years in the future, that’s Calvin. Oh, the particulars are different: shaking hands instead of hugs, memorizing the first and last name of everyone he meets (and not settling for just the first name) instead of sniffing. But the friendliness is the same and once you see beyond the initial differences of his handicap, you see one more difference: this man loves the Lord with such purity and so unconditionally.
    Karen, your post compelled me to read Daniel 4. It is the story of how King Nebuchadnezzar is transformed into a beast and is driven away from all that he has: his kingdom, his honor, his riches, his power; the people who once looked up to him now looked down upon him. How it humbled him toward God! While the Bible doesn’t specify this, I can’t help but wonder if he became more benevolent when his kingdom and all that he had was restored to him. No doubt that at beginning of his downfall, he and others looked upon it as a curse. In the final analysis, it was a marvelous blessing. If only there was a way for everyone to have a taste of this, that their hearts might become tender.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Beautiful post.

    My brother has a mild developmental disability and I can certainly relate to how much freedom exists within the relationship. We are each able to just be ourselves. He is in his mid thirties and is happiest playing board games, so we often spend a good portion of the day playing Catan. My kids love to play Monopoly with him. They think he’s pretty awesome!

    It is unfortunate that so many people are still very uncomfortable being around people with special needs. I love how you said there wasn’t much to learn.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Karen,
    My name is Damian and thank you for writing this. This needs to be read and I ask permission to repost this on my blog. I ask this because, I work with a company that serves individuals with profound developmental disabilities. My wife and I work together with 3 specific ladies and they too, have received the stigma of being a problem due to their disabilities. It does hurt to see how much joy they bring to us yet, the world rebukes them for being different.

    Liked by 1 person

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