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How We Talk to Adults with Intellectual Disabilities

Something I've felt complicated about over the years is the way other adults, who may not have much experience connecting with adults with intellectual disabilities, talk to adult friends of mine with intellectual disabilities in a kind of patronizing way, as if they are children. A little higher in pitch, a little more lilty...you know what I mean. (Whether or not talking to children in that way is awesome is a conversation for another day.)




In some ways, I think it's because in their minds the people with intellectual disabilities are "children" even if they are well into adulthood. For example, they may refer to everything the person does as "so cute" - stuff like that. Their hearts are usually in the right place, but they've also been formed by a culture that tends to identify adults with significant intellectual disabilities are "sweet" and "childlike" so they treat them (and think of them) in that way.


Of course, people with intellectual disabilities are complex human beings with life stories containing beauty and pain (like all life stories). When someone talks about people with Down syndrome or some other kind of intellectual disability and focuses only on how sweet and innocent and angelic they are, my immediate response is to want to mention (in a general way) times someone I know with an intellectual disability said a mean thing, or stole something, or has been stubborn or grumpy or whatever. It always feels weird in those moments when what feels like sticking up for my friends with intellectual disabilities means highlighting (very human, very common) shortcomings.


People don't have shared humanity with angels, and it's much easier to overlook the exclusion, abuse, low expectations, and separateness of a group that you don't think of as your fully human, complex kindred.


At the same time, I've noticed that my friends with intellectual disabilities almost never seem nearly as bothered as I am when someone talks down to them. That's part of what feels complicated. Because if it doesn't seem to be bothering them, who am I to project my feelings onto the situation?


Other people have said that it's because they simply aren't attuned to more subtle social dynamics and conversational tones, but that if they were, they probably wouldn't like it either. That may be true. I've certainly had friends with intellectual disabilities get annoyed with getting treated like children (especially related to things they might like to do like: staying up late, making out with their boyfriend/girlfriend, choosing their own line of work, or other things they may be kept from doing that other adults have much more freedom to do). But in terms of some of the items or activities that tend to get associated with children (stuffed animals, coloring, etc.) a number of my friends (with and without intellectual disabilities!) don't quite feel the same need to separate out what's for "kids" and what's for "adults."


This isn't about needing to give up being childlike. That's something people of all abilities can aim for, like how Jesus said we need to become like little children to enter the realm of Heaven (Matt 18:3, etc.). But it's about not treating someone as a full human person, equal in dignity, with gifts to offer, with needs for support, and with a calling toward growth and transformation.


Ultimately, when I think about why many of my friends with intellectual disabilities either don't mind or don't notice when someone is talking to them in a patronizing tone, there's one lurking thought in the back of my mind that kind of breaks my heart. And that is: for a good number of them (at least among the folks I know), they have been made fun of (so many of the folks I know with intellectual disabilities can remember being teased or bullied in school), rejected, or simply ignored. So for someone to be nice to them, even in a way that might not be fully acknowledging of their humanity and gifts, is better than a lot of alternatives they've experienced.


Or, maybe they're just more gracious than I am.


Either way, let's just aim to talk to people of all abilities with kindness and an acknowledgement of their full, complex personhood. Do unto others and all that.


I hesitated to bring this up, because I know that some people avoid interacting with people with disabilities because they are worried about saying or doing the "wrong" thing. So I don't want to add to that. Please don't let any of this keep you from engaging people of all abilities - if your heart is in the right place, it can cover a multitude of missteps. We all make them, and we all can grow.

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