Learning is a lifelong process. From the moment we’re born until we draw our final breath, we are constantly discovering new facts and processing useful information. What makes that ongoing adventure possible is the realization that we can learn from anyone – including individuals with intellectual challenges. We only need to keep an open mind.

Men and women with disabilities have valuable knowledge and insights to share if we will only give them the respectful attention they deserve.

When we make a concerted effort to interact with them on a personal level, it provides us with the opportunity to see life from their perspective and to recognize that the way they view the world is a powerful lesson in being human.  

Our acknowledgment that we can learn from them creates an atmosphere of equality where everyone is free to contribute and share. While we teach them how to develop their skills and abilities, they can teach us about dedication, commitment, understanding, and acceptance.

Because they have experienced so many obstacles in life that others have been spared, their attitude is different. Many have endured reoccurring pain. Some have had multiple surgeries, physical therapy and other forms of treatment. It is moving to see how fearless people with intellectual challenges can be, even though they think nothing of it. But even more impressive is their intense desire to live their life to the fullest, no matter how significant their issues might be.  

But what some consider to be their disability often leads to a more hopeful way of seeing the world. They can strip away the cynicism, the hate and the prejudice that afflicts so much of society. Their openness and readiness to trust remains intact despite how they have been treated during their lives. They are blessed with the capacity to forgive and move forward.  

These qualities allow them to see the true values in life. They have the ability to focus on what really matters. They naturally say what they mean without playing games or having a hidden agenda. They are straightforward and unpretentious.

Because they are not preoccupied with the superficial, they do not try to manipulate every situation to their advantage or attempt to lift themselves up at the expense of others. They see situations and relationships with more clarity, without all the baggage that goes along with thinking only of yourself. It makes them more genuine and more honest.

Consider the following examples that illustrate how the positive qualities exhibited by people with intellectual challenges benefit others.

  • When someone who has had a stroke, and has the use of one hand, perseveres for several minutes to tie the shoelaces of an individual with cerebral palsy whose motor issues do not always allow them to complete that task, it is evidence of the kindness that can be shared when one person is willing to help another.
  • When an individual who is nonverbal conveys their affection for a friend who is deaf with a hug, they are expressing the purest form of communication.
  • When a person with limited vision holds the door open for someone who uses a walker, they are displaying sincere consideration for another human being.
  • When four people with intellectual challenges play a card game, but instead of trying to win they help each other so they can all keep playing it shows that caring is more important than competition.         
  • When a person with a developmental disability, who reads at a second-grade level, valiantly attempts to read to a person who does not understand printed words at all, they are providing a lesson in sharing yourself to the best of your ability.
  • When someone with a traumatic brain injury happily dances with a friend who uses a wheelchair, they both experience the joy that occurs when people treat others as equals.
  • When someone with Down syndrome listens attentively to a person with a speech disorder, they are giving the respect that every person deserves.  
  • When someone with fragile X syndrome befriends an individual who has multiple seizures each day, they are showing complete acceptance of a person without regard to a diagnosis.
  • When a person who has lost their eyesight due to a brain tumor, forms a bond with someone who has autism and does not make eye contact, the resulting relationship is based on each individual’s willingness to connect with the other person without judging them.

Because men and women with intellectual challenges believe that every person’s life has the same value, it is our loss if we refuse to embrace the lessons they share with us. But if we will take their kindness and compassion to heart, and treat everyone with dignity and respect, we will not only improve their lives but it will also make us better people.   

By consistently demonstrating why we should accept each person for who they are, instead of trying to change them into who we think they should be, individuals with intellectual challenges help us appreciate the beauty and power of diversity that leads to the equal treatment of all members of society.

But the most important thing they teach us is that we can all learn from each other. We should never deceive ourselves into thinking that a person does not have wisdom to share just because they have a particular diagnosis.

Although people with intellectual challenges might have difficulty expressing their incredible view of life, it is far more powerful that they live it.

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