This following article appeared in the front page of Community section of the Richmond Times-Dispatch on April 4, 2010.
As a result of raising a son born with Down Syndrome, I discovered something: Children with special needs are a special blessing to society. My wife and I were stunned when we were told that Sam was born with mental retardation. I had no experience with persons with disabilities. The prognosis for what Sam could and would be able to achieve was very limited, according to our doctor.
We were told to consider institutionalization; but that option was immediately rejected. Instead, we jumped on the mainstreaming bandwagon.
My wife and I resolved to provide Sam with the best medical treatment and overall quality of life possible. Wherever we went and whatever we did, he would go with us.
Fortunately, we were promptly referred to the Greater Richmond ARC (formerly the Association for Retarded Citizens), where Sam obtained important medical services, mastered critical skills needed in daily living activities, and established lifelong friendships.
Since Sam cannot live independently or support himself, it is our lifetime responsibility to provide for him in terms of his care and quality of life. But we are richer for the experience.
What we discovered is how much Sam gives to us. His life has a purpose; it is important and meaningful.
Sam simply makes our lives better. He slows things down. Our family, like most, lives in the fast lane. My wife and I both had professional careers. We are busy.
Sam has two younger siblings who also demanded attention. They are busy. Sam walks slowly; he eats slowly. He is not in a hurry. He gives us perspective. We learned to be patient.
Certainly there were and are difficult days. I know his brother and sister chafed at some of the restrictions our family experienced in caring for a loved one with intellectual disabilities. When you have a family member with special needs, it affects the entire household.
Sam can be unpredictable. He can react inappropriately in certain situations. We learned that embarrassment is not fatal. And that months later, we can all laugh about an incident that we did not find funny at the time.
I also know that Sam’s siblings are better for the experience. Growing up in our family, they developed compassion quickly. They tend to look at things differently, too.
Sam abhors violence. He won’t watch The Three Stooges because they hit each other. In a society where movies and television shows have to be rated for violence, that’s refreshing.
Sam is generous. If he has money, he wants to buy you lunch. If you admire his hat or sports jersey, he will give it to you.
Sam’s feelings are authentic. Sam is always ready and willing to give a smile or hug — to relative, friend, or stranger.
I’ve seen from coaching Special Olympics that even on my most miserable or selfish of days, children and adults with intellectual disabilities literally force you to love — and to acknowledge or reciprocate their affection. Relationships with them are honest.
Many times I resist coaching Special Olympics swimming — until I get there. Then, for the next hour, Sam and the other swimmers and I laugh and bond and have a great time. I walk out knowing that I would much rather have spent the afternoon with those folks than with many other people I know.
I would not be the same person I am today without Sam. And I would not be the same person I am today without the support we experienced in our community.
Children with substantial intellectual disabilities are dependent their entire life. They do not drive, most do not read, and they do not cook. Caregivers are required to constantly think of someone other than themselves. It teaches you to love.
Even if you are not a caregiver or don’t experience these circumstances, you can play a part. Get involved. Support the Special Olympics or the Greater Richmond ARC’s upcoming Ladybug fundraiser on May 1 that generates scholarships for families in need of infant and child services.
Attention, local businesses: You can help by providing work for individuals with intellectual disabilities.
The Greater Richmond ARC’s Industrial Services has a program where adults with intellectual disabilities can spend their day in meaningful activities and earn a paycheck, as well.
Sam worked at the ARC for seven years after completing high school. Sam has now moved on from that experience by his choice and that is my current challenge. He is at home, waiting for the next chapter in his life.
Consider volunteering. Lend an ear when a caregiver needs to talk. Things aren’t the same as they were 30 years ago when family members were the sole caregivers. There is strong support in our community for our loved ones with intellectual disabilities. I see it in my volunteer work. And, I see it firsthand where we live: Everyone recognizes Sam and speaks to him. Many times these are people that I don’t know.
Embrace the Sams of the world. Here is what I learned from them: compassion; patience; courage; trust; gentleness; humility; love.
The love is unconditional.
Written by Thomas G. Haskins, Esq.