In which The Author meets some
children with ‘special needs’
My ex-girlfriend Sam H. works in London, in a residential home for adults with learning difficulties. There’s a similar home not far from my house. The residents (or ‘clients’, as they’re called in the third sector) of both homes are a terrific bunch of people. I’ve never had any problem communicating with them, because I don’t patronise them or treat them differently from anybody else.
My friend Helen J. has two children with ‘special needs’; widowed young, she’s struggled to bring them up from infancy. When I was young, we didn’t use these politically correct terms to describe people like her children, or Sam’s clients. We called them ‘mentally handicapped’ or ‘retarded’ or ‘remedial’ – because we were young and cruel and knew no better.
The first time I met Helen’s children was the day of Aberdare Carnival a few years ago.The four of us sat outside the pub and chatted for a while, then went inside and I played a couple of games of pool with her son Nathan. At the time he was about fourteen, a big strong lad with a gentle, almost timid, soul in his over-sized body. Ashleigh, his young sister, was more talkative and boisterous. Everyone agreed it had been a great afternoon – better, probably, than going to the carnival.
That evening, Helen sent me a text message. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it went something like this:
N & A wanted to know if you were my new boyfriend. I told them you were a friend from way back. A thinks we should get together. N said you are the only adult who doesn’t treat him as a retard.
I didn’t treat Nathan as a retard because he didn’t strike me as such.
Adults who can’t operate the ticket barriers at Cardiff Station, or read the price printed on the back of a book, or come to terms with Chip & PIN two years after its introduction, probably are retards.
Sam always said I’d be great dealing with her clients. I met them all one Xmas Day, when I was invited round to the care home. I had a most enjoyable afternoon, talking to Violet about what life had been like during the Blitz. She didn’t seem like a ‘retard’ at all, just a lovely old Cockney lady with a wealth of stories.
I was talking to one of the publisher’s reps when Sam and I first got together, and he asked what she did for a living.
I said, ‘We’re in the same line of work.’
‘Oh,’ he said, ‘she’s in the book trade too?’
‘No,’ I replied, ‘she works with adults with learning disabilities.’
So do I.
A lot of them come into the shop on a regular basis. At least some collect a monthly salary for doing so. Maybe I should I apply for Attendance Allowance for looking after them all day long.