From January of 1980 through March of 1982 I was a supervisor at a work center for adults with intellectual disabilities. (In the terminology of the time, I was a supervisor at a sheltered workshop for mentally retarded adults.) The center had about seventy-five clients, most of them in their twenties and thirties. I viewed our clients the same way I view anyone else. The qualities that prompt me to like or dislike or respect or sympathize with somebody—these same qualities, when I saw them in a person with a disability, elicited from me the same responses. I certainly never thought of our clients as “special people,” a phrase that was common then, as now. If the phrase is simply a way of saying that every person with a disability matters—that she deserves a good education, a decent place to live, and an opportunity, as an adult, to do whatever work she can—well, it’s hard to argue with that; but in that sense everyone is special, at which point the word loses its meaning. The labeling of people with intellectual disabilities as special is, in part, a backlash against the days when they were characterized as morons or retards. But our aversion to such derogatory words has led us to the other extreme, to words that gloss over the realities. Special people describes nothing: it merely invests disabled persons with a glow of innocence, an aura of adorability, and it tries to remind us, in a rather heavy-handed way, that in America everyone counts.
For years, media campaigns have suggested that persons with intellectual disabilities are invariably cute, friendly, and generous; and that, above all, they are hard-working, striving and struggling with every ounce of energy they have. But in fact, people with intellectual disabilities are no more homogeneous than people without disabilities. At our work center we had as many indolent clients as industrious ones, as many selfish clients as generous ones. There were even-tempered clients and explosive clients, considerate clients and disruptive clients, sociable clients and solitary clients. There were clients who refused to work, but there were also clients who were almost craftsmen.
Through this anthology of portraits, I have tried to convey the incredible variety of people who are lumped together under the umbrella of intellectually disabled. The thirty-nine people presented in this book extend over so much of the human territory—cover such a wide expanse of traits, motivations, and feelings—that to me they constitute a sampler of humanity itself.
Each character in the book is an individual; there are no composite characters. However, the names of all persons have been changed.