The grace to embrace

[Author’s Note: This opening story is included in my upcoming book My Father’s Eyes.]

Dog cat umbrellaIt was a Saturday afternoon and my Uncle Melrose and I were at McDonald’s, waiting in line to order hamburgers. As usual my uncle, who had a profound intellectual disability, was ecstatic to be at his favorite restaurant. He liked going out, he liked hamburgers and he liked being around children. There were always lots of kids at this particular McDonald’s.

Uncle Melrose got so excited, so exuberant while we were waiting to order that he reached out and put his arms around the man standing in front of him.

I, of course, was horrified. “Let go!” I yelled, afraid the man would be angry.

To my surprise, the man turned around and smiled and said, “That’s okay” as I helped Melrose disengage from his embrace.

It was the only time in the 10 years that I knew my uncle that he created a scene in public, and all things considered, it wasn’t much of a scene.

The benefits of visibility

It certainly wasn’t what many families who have disabled members face. A recent article in Disability Scoop, which bills itself as the Premier Source for Disability News, told of a family with a child who became boisterous at a restaurant. The child had a disability. Another diner, a compassionate one, paid the family’s bill.

These experiences are not only heartwarming, they are a testament to the fact that people are gaining greater understanding of individuals with disabilities. With the mainstreaming of students with disabilities in the public schools, with more employment opportunities for those with disabilities, and with greater visibility of this population, people are more compassionate and understanding.

I have often wondered if the man we encountered at McDonald’s worked with people like my uncle or if he had a family member with a disability. He was a rarity at the time – more than 15 years ago. Most people we encountered just stared at Uncle Melrose and kept their distance.

I used to get annoyed at their apparent insensitivity, but eventually I learned to ignore it. I was usually so wrapped up in helping Uncle Melrose that I didn’t have time to worry about how others were reacting.

Yesterday, a friend asked me what I would tell someone if they were unexpectedly hugged by a person with a disability. I told her I hoped they would have the grace to hug them back.