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Seeing Personality in Intellectual Disability. Overcoming Stigma with Tea.

When entering a special education setting, both for children and young adults, you will discover many dedicated teachers, often going above and beyond in providing individualized support. If this is your first encounter in this kind of environment then, honestly, you may also be a bit intimidated.

I can remember my initial five minutes in a specialized program for people with intellectual disabilities. A woman ran to me offering a foot massage for a dollar, a young man asked me my name repeatedly, standing uncomfortably close, and someone behind me was stomping his feet on the floor. Truthfully, I was overwhelmed by all of these behaviors.

As my chosen occupation is humanitarian in nature, I was disappointed in myself for being intimidated in this first encounter. Was I part of the machine that stigmatizes people with intellectual disabilities? With time, I judged myself less harshly as I noted similar reactions in most educators, new to the profession.

Any person educating children and adults with intellectual disabilities can bear witness to the reactions people in society may have towards this population. A significant percentage of the community at large seems unsure as to how they should interact with these individuals, leading to a variety of responses, including avoidance. There are even those that may show some form of aggression towards this group. With that said, I believe that the majority of reactions may be the result of multiple misconceptions. The foremost of these being, assumptions regarding how complex or capable a person with intellectual disabilities can be. The mannerisms and behaviors that people witness may unfortunately overshadow the underlying personalities.

A simple exercise can illuminate my point. Imagine the same scenario described above, but now picture it as a scene where I was coming to work in a hotel. Within five minutes at my new job, a customer asks me if I want to buy a foot massage, another is invading my personal space, and someone is throwing a temper tantrum. It may sound like an unpleasant experience but then again, who are these people?

Could the first person be a woman that works in a local massage parlor, offering me an employee discount? Could the person standing really close to me have a hearing problem, needing to bend closer to get my response? The person throwing a tantrum may be an upset customer that just flew in for a conference, late because of multiple delayed flights, only to find out that an error had occurred during booking and that there was no room available. This is an important conference about world hunger and this person just happens to be the keynote speaker, exhausted from an endless travelling ordeal. Looking at the people behind the behaviors, the scene seems less obtrusive.

The same question asked here should be asked when interacting with people with intellectual disabilities. Who are these people?

The woman who offered me a foot massage, Becky, was an energetic person that wanted a purpose. She needed a job and she also had a good sense of humor. Bernard, who had asked me my name repeatedly, invading my personal space, was a net-worker. He liked to greet everyone by name when they came into the building. He just needed to exert a bit more effort in order to remember names. He also did respect personal space. I just had to ask for it. The person banging his feet, Sam, actually was having a tantrum. He was upset that someone in his class had not come that day. He was a leader, worried about the well being of a classmate that had not arrived.

I do not believe that Stigma is about initial reactions. It is natural to hesitate or even be wary when encountering certain situations for the first time. Rather Stigma is born out of a lack of effort to uncover personality. In the two scenarios, in a special education setting versus in a hotel, asking who these people are mitigated the impact of certain behaviors. Unfortunately, the community at large may be less prone to do so when meeting people with intellectual disabilities as the mannerisms of the disability are often kept at the focal point.

Encouraging a focus on personality could be a crucial step in overcoming the stigma.

Fortunately, an abundance of teachers are already doing so. By providing individualized support, educators are helping society see how complex and capable people with intellectual disabilities can be. They encourage their students to express their personalities in ways that help them integrate into communities. The person that wants to work, gets a job. The person that wants to network, gets to socialize. The leader gets responsibilities. The introverted artist gets guidance and supplies. The homemaker gets to cook, clean, and design. The singer gets a karaoke machine and opportunists to perform.

Teachers provide their students with ongoing opportunities to express their individuality.

One teacher, I had the pleasure of working with, I feel exemplified this noble endeavor with a seemingly simple pastime, specifically, making tea. This social and creative activity allows an abundance of opportunity for the expression of personality through personal choices. The cups can be ornate, functional, or humorous. The colors of the tea leaves can be as beautiful as any work of art. The flavors and aromas can elicit a variety of emotions or even memories. With so many options, tea time can be transformed into form of personal, social, and even cultural exploration.

With time, this teacher expanded the benefits of this activity by inviting families to take part in this activity and to invite others. Doing so has allowed people in her community to gain exposure to her students in a manner where expression of personality is the focal point and intellectual disability secondary.

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If you are a teacher encountering behavior problems in school then do take a look at my recent first book, available at all major outlets.

(Just click on the image.)

Ami Braverman