I’m on the diversity committee at work and am basically a walking diversity yelling machine outside of work too, so I take keeping my own mind open (and my cultural humility robust) very seriously.

It’s relatively easy for me to work on certain prejudices I have within the context of the social justice movements I’m involved in–race, sexuality, size, gender, class, etc…these are commonly discussed, and I am constantly engaging with people from these communities. However, there is one noticeably absent group of people in my social justice world: people with cognitive disabilities.

Superman figure standing next to a megaphone with text “You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?”

Because I didn’t grow up with anyone with a cognitive disability, and probably for a variety of other reasons, I have trouble comfortably and respectfully interacting with anyone who is cognitively disabled. I’ve identified this as something I want to change, and since I work at the YMCA, which in general is a popular place for folks with cognitive disabilities, I decided to start my work here.

I work with a guy with Down’s named Jacob* and I’ve spent months thinking about how I can engage with him. I don’t want to befriend him as a token, and I don’t want to do anything disrespectful, and I certainly don’t want to expect him to give me an education on the state of the cognitively disabled world! So I’ve been passively friendly and thought a lot about the best way to engage.

Today I had a breakthrough.

Jacob was wearing a really cute shirt–one I’d buy. I said hi to him, told him I liked his shirt and asked him where he got it (he’s got good style, so I was pretty confident that the shirt was from this season and therefore something I could reasonably obtain if I wanted to.) When he said he didn’t remember, we checked the tag together.

We figured out it was J Crew, and I said I like their stuff and he said he did too, and then he patted me happily and said something I didn’t catch and we went our separate ways.

I’m sure this interaction sounds absurdly elementary to people with more experience with people with Down’s and other cognitive disabilities, but to me it felt revolutionary. It felt as though I had really nailed a respectful, friendly interaction with someone who was very different from me, and that we had both come away from it feeling good about ourselves and each other.

Some people may be able to do this without as much analysis and thought, but I know I’m not alone–I know there are other people who freeze up when they try to interact with people who are very different from them. The common advice is “just treat them like you would anyone else!” but I don’t find that to be very helpful, considering my intense awareness of how different we all are and how important context is when communicating with other people.

I think the reason this was so successful for me–other than the fact that Jacob is a generally friendly guy who I’ve seen respond positively in a variety of social situations–is that I felt like I had a connection point with him. Something we had in common that we could have a real conversation about.

I offer this example of my own tiny growth in the direction of becoming a respectful and compassionate contributor to interactions with cognitively disabled people as a positive anecdote for people who are trying to grow outside their comfort zones when it comes to talking and working with people around whom they feel discomfort.

Maybe Jacob and I will be fashion pals now, maybe not, but I did take a step towards active empathy and engagement with a member of a community I don’t understand well. And that’s important.

Although it’s difficult to find writing by people with Down’s, as opposed to family members writing ABOUT people with Down’s, here’s some resources to get you started if you’d like to begin trying to connect with people with intellectual disabilities:

  1. Down 2 Earth Blog
  2. National Down Syndrome Society–stories by and about people with Down’s Syndrome
  3. Count Us In–Growing Up With Down’s Syndrome

*name changed