Let me tell you about a young man I know well. We’ll call him PJ. I hesitate to say that PJ suffers from Down’s Syndrome. He doesn’t know about such suffering, he just gets on with life, grateful for all he has, living a life of love.
PJ is just over 30 years old. He left school with good grades and has been working as a catering assistant in a major store for over 10 years. He has recently been accepted as a member of his local Baptist church and plays a full and active role there, welcoming folks as they enter, helping to distribute the bread and wine, and other routine chores.
When PJ was born, a number of significant things took place in his family. Firstly, the medical profession in general were of the view that it would be better for him and his family if he were confined to an institution where he would be properly and professionally cared for, and the family, specifically his parents – his mother an accountant and his father a businessman – could get on with their lives unencumbered.
Secondly, they were a Christian family, and it so happened that a visiting preacher was leading a form of Retreat at their church around the time when PJ was born. This man was a psychologist, with significant experience in treating children with mental health issues. He explained to PJ’s parents that Down’s syndrome affects people in varying degrees and crucially that there is much a caring family can do to minimise its impact. He also made the point that people with ‘learning difficulties’ often have a way of seeing the familiar from a different perspective, and that we, who consider ourselves to be normal, will often take the view, ‘my mind is made up, don’t confuse me with facts!’ In other words PJ is not cursed with the blight of preconceptions that make real learning difficult.
And so PJ was fully assimilated into a loving and supportive family environment. The Down’s Syndrome Association used to use an image of a Down’s Syndrome child playing with a group of boys roughly his own age, and the slogan was; ‘Some people call him Mongol, some call him Down’s Syndrome, his friends call him Kevin.’ And that is how it was with PJ.
I spoke to his father shortly after he spent a week with PJ in Nice. They have had many family holidays together, but this was the first time they had spent a week together on their own, just father and son, and he wept as he told me, it was the richest and most uplifting time he had ever spent on holiday.
‘I’ll tell you a little about it,’ he said. ‘PJ rarely gets ruffled, he lives life in the slow lane, and that can be annoying. I always seem to have places to go, people to see, things to do.
‘In short, what the boy taught me last week is the value of time, of not having unreasonable expectations of others and of a thoroughly non-competitive spirit.’
He told me of a race that took place in a school for children with special needs. One of them slipped and fell, the others stopped, picked him up and made sure he was OK before continuing the race. And we think it is they who have special needs?
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