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Reconnaissance Efforts, Social Justice, and Subversive Dinner Parties

Posted By Stephanie‎ Lind On 06.02.2011 @ 2:32 AM In Faith and Families,General | Comments Disabled

I am a fairly composed woman. And yet today I found myself half running, half trotting in an attempt to look as casual as possible as I careened down Broadway in four and a half inch Jimmy Choo heels attempting to catch up with a group of tourists from the mid-west. I didn’t catch them. I was more cautious on today’s reconnaissance efforts as I may, or may not, have tripped recently.

If I had caught them, I’m not sure what I would have said. You see, I have been on a witch-hunt for people with Downs Syndrome. Since my daughter was diagnosed with Downs Syndrome six weeks ago, I have been struggling to merge what the specialists keep telling me with what my experience of people with this condition has been. I thought that if I could meet someone with Downs and talk with them, that perhaps it would help—help me understand what this will mean for our Jolie, for our family, for all the hopes I had for my daughter. The problem is, I can’t find one. One out of every eight hundred babies is supposedly born with Downs Syndrome, so it seems like I would be able to track one down in a city of eight million (plus the millions of tourists who descend onto the island every year to stand motionless on our sidewalks (until you’re trying to catch one)).

“Do you know any children in a school that has a special needs program?” Amy asked me, as we brainstormed how to apprehend such a person.
“No. I don’t know any school-aged children.”
“Do you know any older mothers that might be in a group where someone could have a Downs child?”
“No. I don’t really know any other mothers.”
We hit several more dead ends before realizing that I pretty much only know people who are my academic and career equals, my age, my economic status; essentially, people who are exactly like me (sans the kids, because who honestly has kids in their early twenties these days?).

I had no leads. I used to volunteer at my church’s Sunday school class for the mentally challenged. My mom works at a school for special needs children. We used to have friends who were mentally and physically handicapped who were a part of our lives and Thanksgivings and Sunday mornings. But I don’t happen to know any disabled people in Manhattan.

When at first I had this thought, it reminded me of a black and white reel from the 1960’s that I watched in my college civil rights class. It was of a kind looking woman who balanced a child against her pressed checkered dress and told the camera man: “Well, no, I don’t happen to have any colored neighbors. They don’t happen to go to this here church or to Lucy’s school because they live over in a different part of town. But I don’t see why it’s the Presidents’ business or anybody else’s for that matter who I associate with. This here is a private issue—who I attend church with and have over for lunch afterward isn’t anyone else’s business but mine.” She paused, shifted her weight and smoothed her daughter’s hair. “And like I said: I don’t have any colored neighbors.”

I don’t have any handicapped friends. I don’t have any blind or deaf friends. I don’t have any elderly friends. I don’t have any friends who have Downs Syndrome. I don’t have any friends who are orphaned, undocumented, who are refugees, or even just who are new to America and are struggling to learn the language.

And I think, that at some point, who we associate with becomes not just a personal choice, a personal matter of association, but an issue our communities should be accountable for. When no one associates with the disabled or the elderly or the poor or the refugee, these people’s needs become invisible. They become invisible. We used to call this segregation. And we used to call it wrong.

But today, parents don’t want children like Jolie in their children’s classrooms, children don’t want their elderly parents living with them, and nobody wants to deal with anyone who is mentally or physically challenged if they don’t have to. And there are hundreds of children in our city who are abandoned by their families to the foster care system because they had medical conditions that were too much of a burden. From life-altering sacrifices to simple things like just having a conversation with a deaf person on scraps of paper at Starbucks, we are unwilling to include the handicapped in our lives. This shunning is so widespread that I would like to submit that it is no longer a personal issue. It is something we are communally accountable for.

I see two ways we can re-establish the visibility and honoring of those who are the ‘least of these’—those who are currently segregated out of our society and socially dishonored. One way is to pass legislation to force re-integration. Sometimes this is necessary. As a closet libertarian and a novice chef, I recommend the second way: dinner parties. Subversive ones. When those who are socially undervalued are welcomed into our lives, into our homes, the host challenges the values and expectations of the larger community. They are, as Christine Pohl writes, “a witness to the larger community, which is then challenged to reassess its standards and methods of valuing.” Ethicist Philip Hallic believes that “the opposite of cruelty is not simply freedom from the cruel relationship, it is hospitality.” In welcoming those who are marginalized, we can move from hostility to hospitality, and turn our city, our neighborhood, our street, our home, our lives into places of acceptance and peace.

It may seem simple or foolish, but that’s my plan. Track down a Downs person and invite them to dinner. And stay upright in my heels as I’m doing it.

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