I had seldom seen her quiet and calm, this friend of my daughter’s, her fellow-resident in the care home. She was non-verbal and had only the most limited means of making her needs or discomfort known. She would scream or wail or stuff her hands in her mouth and lament, because she had no words with which to indicate that she was hungry, thirsty, cold or lonely.
But one day recently I turned up and she had no unmet needs and was quiet and content. I paused in front of her, then on impulse stooped down to the level of her wheelchair. She tilted her head to one side and raised an eyebrow. I tilted my head to the same side and raised one of my eyebrows. A broad grin broke over her face like the sun dissipating the clouds. She tilted her head and raised her eyebrow again. I mirrored her movements, and this time the grin she flashed at me was cheeky and conspiratorial. She raised a hand to the side of her face and waggled her fingers. I raised my hand to the side of my face and waggled my fingers right back at her. She giggled with quiet delight.
I don’t know whether, next time I see her, she will remember this exchange. But I do know that while it was going on, communication was taking place. I reflected what she was saying, and she befriended me. I know that when next I see her I will have a language in which to communicate with her – a language she taught me. I’m not yet fluent but I’m a willing pupil and she is clearly a ready teacher. T.S. Eliot once said that genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood. If he was right then we were making poetry, she and I. Nothing that she said to me got filtered through my mind before I absorbed it. It spoke direct to my spirit, as, judging from her reaction, did my communication to hers.
I have been reflecting on this – on how the infinite Mind that conceived and then created the universe offers me friendship, not because my intellect is on a par with His, but because true friendship is not brain to brain but heart to heart and spirit to spirit. So there is no reason why I should not form a genuine friendship with someone whose intellectual capacity is in a different ball-park from mine (be that a Stephen Hawking or a person with a profound learning disability). Friendship does not depend on cognitive capacity but on the capacity to receive love.
People with intellectual disabilities are, worldwide, the most despised, neglected and lonely people on this planet. Why should this be? They have friendship to offer, they have a language in which to communicate their amity and joy, and they are ready to teach that language to us. How much richness we miss out on when we pass them by without a second glance. For that matter, why am I even talking about “we” and “they”? There is no “them” and “us”. We are all in this together, and it’s up to us whether we want to take advantage of the treasures of friendship together, or to go through life impoverished by the lack of that which we fail to esteem.