I appreciate that this blog may make some uncomfortable, angry even. I think there are times when we look at things we do to support people with intellectual disabilities and say, “It provides so much happiness, so much self esteem, how could it possibly be wrong?”
I recently saw a YouTube clip showing a young and fit man, with Down’s Syndrome, in the octagon with a professional mixed martial arts fighter in an exhibition or “simulated” match. They made friends at the gym and in an act of kindness, the pro arranged for the two of them to have a match in front of a large audience. While the young man with the disability had skills beyond a typically fit person off the street, he was clearly over-matched by the MMA Professional. The match began with all the typical MMA pageantry, including over the top introductions, half naked women parading with cards, etc. The young amateur was enjoying every second of the fantasy. As you would expect, the young man won the fight handily and you could tell by the way he fought and his reaction to winning, he thought it was real, while everyone else in the arena knew it was a fantasy.
As far as we know, the stories end there. The MMA fighter goes on with his professional career. After each achievement, commentators gush at their selfishness and nobility. The “act of kindness” follows them for many years.
Why is it that we never seem to be interested in the other side of the story. How has the young man with Down’s Syndrome dealt with the fact that what he may have conceptualized as reality may actually be an elaborate fantasy? For a brief moment, the young man is allowed to believe he is a MMA star. And hey, maybe that is his future, but we don’t find out.It’s almost like we assume, that this will be the pinnacle of the disabled person’s life.This act of kindness will sustain them for the rest of their lives.We are left to believe that they will be eternally grateful.
Here’s actual quotes from the news stories:
"This restores my faith in humanity."
"A true hero."
"His parents raised him right."
"What a kind and wonderful thing this man did to give him the experience of a lifetime…"
Conversely, for me, It feels like some kind of twisted “Make a Wish” scenario, except the recipient doesn’t die shortly after their dreams come true, they are just forgotten. Based on my experience, more likely the family of the young man have struggled because he now wants a real future in MMA fighting, having knocked out the “champ”. He can’t understand why the reality created for him isn’t continuing.
There are now countless stories of high school proms where “special needs” teens are escorted to their proms by someone from the highest social elite in the school – Football / Basketball star, et al. While there is the occasional “life long friends” who are both clear that this is friends experiencing a milestone event together, as is the case with the rising hockey star, Brock Boesser. He was upset that the story went ‘viral’.
I worry, however, there are an equal or greater number where there is a huge conflict between the realities felt by each person after the big event. The high school senior who unselfishly escorts the girl with Down’s Syndrome to the prom does so with the clear understanding, in their own mind, that this is a ‘one-time’ thing. The world applauds the unselfish and kind action. The clock strikes midnight, the fantasy ends and the senior goes on to College, work, marriage and family – forever remembered for their unselfish act. The girl goes home and waits for the next act of “charity”.
I’m not angry about the actions of the people who mean well.I’m angry that we still see people with disabilities as object of pity.I’m frustrated that we create these Santa Claus / Tooth Fairy / Easter Bunny fantasies for 31 year old men who have a passion for staying fit or teen age girls who dream about just fitting in at school. Maybe instead of creating a role for him that he cannot possibly sustain (or ever top), just be a workout partner. Maybe instead of trying to be Prince Charming, a role you have no intention of continuing, just invite them for coffee with your friends.
How about we work to provide quality relationships for people that are based in reality, instead of building elaborate fantasies that serve the creator’s ego.
Written by: Clint Hames