09 December, 2010

Shelly was still thirteen years old

In 1981, I was employed to teach a sailing course for individuals with disabilities. In an attempt to recruit new students, we visited several segregated living accommodations for people with physical disabilities. When we entered one "facility," I recognized a young woman whom I shall refer to as Shelly. Shelly and I had come to know each other while we were in a segregated public school and had become close friends. She had cerebral palsy. and was an intelligent, perceptive girl who had a dry and biting sense of humor. Together we had talked about what it was like to be handicapped, we laughed about how people reacted to us and shared many of the common ironies and frustrations.

After completing Grade Seven, I was integrated into a regular school and from there continued on into a secondary school, and then entered University. Shelly had continued her education in various segregated settings, eventually moving into a segregated residence. Shelly and I had parted when we were both thirteen years old. I had not seen Shelly for ten years since that time. Consequently, I was overjoyed to see Shelly again. I sat down and began talking with her. In five minutes, I painfully realized that Shelly was still thirteen years old.

At that moment, the connection between segregation and death became apparent.

--Norman Kunc, Integration: Being Realistic Isn't Realistic

Generally I don't like the idea of mental age, and I certainly don't think that someone should be said to have "the mental age of a child" because of their IQ score or their interests or anything. But I find this passage to be really striking. This summer when I was in Vermont--which is a place where a lot of disabled people go to mainstream schools, hardly anyone seems to live in group homes, and there are no sheltered workshops--I started to feel a difference that often existed between middle-aged and elderly people with intellectual disabilities, and people in their teens, twenties, and early thirties. It didn't have to do with how well someone could talk or something like that. Though there were many outliers in both groups, younger people overall seemed less "compliant" and seemed to have stronger interests. I discussed these two kinds of people in my Mark and David post, although in that post the two examples were the same age.

Maybe the more compliant people with less strong personalities were not exactly like children. Maybe mental age is the wrong word to use. But there is a sense of something missing. I don't mean to talk tragically about those people; many of them are great. But I think some people with intellectual disabilities must have certain experiences when they are growing up, and you can feel the distance between them and people with ID who have simply grown up.


  1. Wow, that passage is really sad and scary.

    I can see how it could happen though. I imagine that sheltered living situations aren't places where people are challenged or have their abilities believed in. So it's not unbelievable that people would stagnate in such places. What a shame.

  2. There's a way of being "like a child," I think, a certain type of arrested development that has nothing to do with being dumb or having terrible executive function or liking things that people older than 12 aren't usually interested in. It has to do with the way one interacts with other people, especially adults-- it's a kind of falling into this teacher/student or caretaker/child dynamic instead of relating as equals in maturity, albeit maybe ones with different needs or ability levels. (I don't know whether this is making sense.) I mean, I think that that can be a behavioral pattern a person falls into automatically because they're underconfident or used to interacting that way, and I think it can also be something that's actively encouraged to develop, if a person spends most or all of her time in an environment where she's treated like a kid, spoken to like a kid, punished like a kid, ect.

    Is that kind of what you mean, maybe? (I haven't read the post you're quoting yet, but I mean to.)

  3. Yes that's exactly what I mean. Thank you for explaining it properly.

  4. That's actually what I think I was trying to say when I emailed you last night, before I got distracted.

  5. We're lucky we have Fitz to talk for us.