Down syndrome and othering, image of a girl looking down, in purple sepia tones

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This is a continuation of a personal story about 13 year old Moxie (who has Down syndrome) and camp crush experience. The first part of the story is linked here: A Story of Othering, Part One (Down syndrome and Camp)

After the spotlight had been placed on my 13-year-old daughter, Moxie over her apparent crush on a peer, I spent more time at the camp to keep an eye on things.

What I noticed was that, rather than Moxie having a crush on the boy, the boy seemed to have a crush on her. He followed her around, got inside her physical bubble (of an arm’s distance all around her). He touched her at any chance he could. He talked to her whenever he could. He gave her presents, from her preferred snacks to stringing up a bead bracelet for her. Moxie offered nothing back except some polite conversation, expressions of thanks and more than one eye roll. She seemed far more interested in the other girls in the show than this boy. I doubt she even ever learned his name.

I was surprised by this. And I was perplexed. I’ve seen Moxie have crushes on people, and I’ve seen her go in for an extra giggle or hug or flirtatious pout. She displayed none of this with the boy. She seemed bored by him. So how and why did the staff think she liked him or behaved inappropriately?

I still don’t have a definite answer to that, but I do know that the attitude surrounding the boy’s interest in Moxie was one of applause. People did not seem to notice how in her bubble, in her face he consistently was. They didn’t seem to notice how he didn’t leave her alone, or that her reaction did not seem appreciative of his attention.

They seemed to acclaim this “kind” boy, at how he was friending Moxie. They didn’t seem to notice how one-sided it was.

My heart grew still with the realization that these types of situations must happen to so many others with intellectual disabilities. That those with disabilities seem like such an “other,” so different from a non-disabled peer. They are not thought to feel the same as someone who doesn’t have Down syndrome. Indeed, I’m sure there are plenty of people who think people with Down syndrome don’t have the same feelings that those of us without Down syndrome do.

I think some people think that people with Down syndrome are not the same as us. They are different. They are an “other.”

If that boy had been as much in another (non-disabled) girl’s face as he had been with Moxie, I doubt it would have been met with smiles and head nods of approval, “he’s so friendly.” “He’s so kind.”

This is how abuse can happen.

This is how abuse does happen.

People are not watching from the perspective of potential abuse.

You don’t think someone who looks or talks differently from you has the same feelings that you do, and you don’t see a given situation as if you were the one living it.

People think people with Down syndrome are not sexual beings, or that perhaps it’s not possible for a person with Down syndrome to be attractive or crush-able to someone without. People will think the person with Down syndrome is a happy angel, sweet and innocent and perhaps an occasional rascal. But not someone for whom another desires or wants to get close to or touch, be with.

This is how abuse can happen.

This is how abuse does happen.

People are not watching from the perspective of potential abuse.

“Othering” is the act of setting a person apart, making them different from us. We do it all the time. In politics (republicans, democrats), in race (kanaka/Hawaiian, haole/white, local/mixed, Japanese), in religion (Christian, Muslim). And we do it with disability (them, us). Setting people off as an “other,” someone different from us, is a natural instinct. It makes evolutionary sense to know your tribe. But the thing is, we do this to such an extreme that we don’t even see some people as human anymore, once we’ve made them an ‘other.’

I see this with Moxie.

People might be friendly to her, smile at her. It’s clear though, that they don’t think she’s the same as them. Spending time with her is either part of some do-good activity (help someone “special”!) or it’s literally their job.

It’s rare to see anyone reach out to Moxie as an equal and see her as worth getting to know – not just someone to be kind to and feel sorry for because she has Down syndrome.

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