Talk to the Kid! Engaging People with Developmental Disabilities

“Bread. . .B. .Bread!” the boy grunted as he walked awkwardly from table to table in the cafeteria, begging for extra bread and stuffing his mouth full. I never did like the bread and butter “sandwiches” in elementary school, so I gladly handed mine over to Robbie. Actually, I didn’t even know his name was Robbie until later. We kids just called him “The Retard.”

Calling people with developmental disabilities “retarded” is no longer politically correct, however many people are uncomfortable talking with a child or an adult who is “dealing with less than a full deck,” as my friend Mike put it recently. Mike was one of those people who would see a mentally challenged child or adult and try to head the other way. He didn’t want to make eye contact and he certainly didn’t want to engage in conversation. But that all changed when Mike had his first son, Dale. Dale, now 11, is mildly mentally retarded and also has apraxia, a speech disorder.

“God has an interesting sense of humor,” said Mike. “I was given the very kid I was afraid to talk to, not knowing how to relate. Dale also has no social skills. So, he’s that kid who will talk at the top of his voice right in front of your face in the middle of a store.”

“It’s kind of hard to talk to a kid who is talking really loud and drawing everyone’s attention to your conversation. In the back of your mind you’re thinking, everybody’s looking at me and wondering what I’m going to do.”

Mike has a different viewpoint now and encourages people to confidently engage with people with developmental disabilities. It’s “good for the kid,” giving the child practice in communication and social skills. It’s good for the larger community. Mike tells the story of how his son’s 4th grade teacher told him that his son’s class was the most caring and compassionate class that she’d ever seen come through the school. And the reason was Dale. The students all pulled around him and all took care of him.

Finally, engaging with people with developmental disabilities is good for people, individually. “You see the world through a whole different set of eyes,” said Mike. “We tend to make the world very complex. I’ve got all my schedules. I’ve got this to get done. I’ve got that to get done. I’ve got to worry about politics, finances. . .these kids aren’t worried about that. All they want to do is talk about their favorite video game or about a cat. Then when you stop, slow down and engage with them, you start to see that this world is not that complex.”

So, how to engage?

Look them in the eye. Don’t be afraid to say, “I’m sorry I don’t understand,” or, “I can’t quite follow what you’re saying. Can you slow down?” If the child is with an adult, you can ask the adult for some help, “Hey, can you help me here? I don’t quite follow what he’s saying.” If you are having difficulty, you can just listen and give encouragement with your body language (nodding) and verbally (oh, really? Hmmm?). They just want someone to listen.

I’m ashamed to say I never engaged “The Retard,” aside from giving him my bread. Nobody did. We all saw him as something a little less than human. Maybe if the adults in our life had encouraged us to engage with him it might have been different. Unfortunately, we never really had much of an opportunity. Later that school year, he choked and died on a piece of bread at lunch. That’s when I learned his name was Robbie.


About Diane Windingland
I speak for organizations that want their people to have better, more profitable conversations.

3 Responses to Talk to the Kid! Engaging People with Developmental Disabilities

  1. John says:

    Great advice. I direct a program supporting adults with developmental disabilities and I am always telling people in the community that it is OK to talk directly to the person with the disability instead of asking a staff person, “What do they want?” I also regularly tell people to talk to an adult as an adult no matter how you perceive their disability. Most adults with developmental disabilities have much better receptive skills than they do expressive skills. Please talk to a non-verbal person just the same as you would a person who is verbal.

  2. Thanks, John–basically, you are saying to talk to a person with a disability as . . .a person!

  3. Pingback: The Number One Secret to Captivating Conversations and Memorable Messages « Small Talk, Big Results

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