They are defined by mental health associations as persons with "subadequate intelligence with defective reasoning ability and physical deformities." The law states that they are entitled to an education, so they are clustered together in a regimented way of living, segregated from mainstream society in order to be "taught." Many reach their maximum level of functioning when they learn to tie a shoe or push a button on a wheelchair. Many never reach even that level, spending their days and nights slumped in a chair or lying on a bed.
Our assignment for the day was to observe these "mentally retarded" individuals in the state institution that was called their home. As twenty of us lined up to walk through the corridors of the "school," an uncomfortable feeling began to form in my stomach. As we walked down the hallway peering into the small rooms, I felt like an intruder -- a trespasser. Passing by one room, I viewed a small boy of about eight years old lying on a cot, rocking his body to and fro, his arms and legs permanently distorted. "Is this his potential?" I thought. Another room housed five or six people in wheel chairs -- some slumped and tied to their chairs to keep them from falling. Some drooled.
The uncomfortable feeling grew as we moved on. I felt as though we were visitors in a human zoo, gawking at human mistakes. Remembering truths such as "nothing in this world happens by accident" and "everything has a purpose in God's plan," I wondered -- What is God's reasoning here? What possible purpose can these unfortunate human beings fill?
When we finally reached the end of the long corridor, I breathed a sigh of relief. Our tour through the human zoo was nearly over. My heart was heavy. I could see no good here. As we walked out into the sunshine, I asked God to enlighten me -- to show me some good -- some purpose for the quirks of nature that surrounded us.
As we walked down the sidewalk, we had to move to the side as we were approached by a young boy of about fifteen rolling down the sidewalk in his wheelchair. As he passed, I looked down at him, and our eyes met. His face broke into a bright smile. I was touched by the innocence I saw shining through his eyes. As I returned his smile, some of the gloom in my heart lifted. I watched the boy as he rolled away, greeting each and every person he met with that heartwarming smile.
We continued across the grounds and observed a small group of these individuals with "subadequate intelligence" sitting on the lawn. One young woman laid her cheek against the grass and smiled. A small boy held a tiny furry kitten, looking down at it lovingly as he caressed it. His face held a peaceful, contented smile. An old woman of about seventy held a flower to her nose, breathing in the sweet scent. As we passed this group, they all looked at us, smiled warmly and waved.
When I gazed back at them, their physical deformities and abnormal facial features disappeared. I saw only what God had given them that remained free of retardation -- the capacity to love, and the willingness to share that love. God was allowing me to see the purpose.
The quirks of nature that had distorted their bodies and stunted their intelligence left their spirits intact. The defects that keep these humans segregated from "normal" humans are the very things that keep their souls alive and their innocence unmarred.
Back into the real world, we piled into our cars and headed home. I looked around me at the "normal" people pulling onto the highway. I tried to catch someone's eye to exchange smiles. Everyone, it seemed, was caught up in their world of "normalcy" -- concentrating on traffic -- what to fix for supper -- getting angry at someone driving too slow. Who are the humans really living below their potential? I thought. Who are really the unconnected ones? Is it those we left behind, who spend their days living simply, with the ability to connect with nature, whose smiles remain loving and true? Or are we, who are caught up in "normalcy" the ones who are disconnected? We, the fortunate ones who avoid eye contact with one another, who pass a puppy without a loving pat. We who lock our hearts and once in a while extend a frozen smile. We, who in our daily rush, irritate one another as we attempt to do things or get things. Who is closest to God? I thought.
By the time I'd reached home my depression had been replaced with gratitude. I stopped in the yard, picked a flower and breathed in its scent. Instead of yelling at the cat, I picked him up, petted him and spoke softly. When my daughter came home from school I gave her a big hug and told her how glad I was that she was who she was. I asked God to help me remember the next time I got caught up in "normalcy" to stop and give a smile, a hug, or smell a rose.
Artwork "Hold" by Peter Devooght
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