When I was in high school, I rode the short bus, and amazingly, it wasn’t a bad experience. I happened to live near two group homes where there lived several students who had Down syndrome, and the driver was a wonderful person.
I was the only person on that bus who didn’t have Down’s. The ostensible reason for me being there was that I was legally blind, hence I was assigned to a school up quite far north from where I lived at the time. I had been used to long bus rides to school ever since kindergarten because the Seattle School District concentrated us Disabled students into one or two schools per age group. This meant that all the students with Downs, all the students who used wheelchairs or other mobility devices, all the Blind students, and all the students with learning disabilities — in fact all Disabled high school students, except, oddly, for the Deaf students — went to my high school. (I still have no idea what school someone who was both Deaf and a wheelchair user, would have gone to, but I digress…)
But as I said, on my bus, my short bus, I was the only student who didn’t have Down’s and thus was the only student who didn’t have intellectual disability. Which meant given my internalized and cross-disability ableism that I was board out of my mind, since I didn’t think I had anyone to talk to. I would have read a book, but because of my very limited eyesight and learning disability (severe dyslexia), I couldn’t read at all, as the motion of the bus made the text appear to bounce around before my eyes.
So I talked with the driver most of the time. She was an interesting person, a cancer survivor, one of the first people in my state to advocate for the legalization of medical pot. And she was kind to me and to the other students in the bus. Something I wish I had picked up on and emulated much earlier in life.
It’s not that I was ever deliberately unkind to the other students on the bus or when I saw them in the halls at school — in fact I even stood up for some of my bus mates on occasion when I witnessed their teacher verbally abusing them, which, alas, he did all to often in the classroom — but that I still felt insulted when abled people assumed my intelligence to be roughly the same as that of someone with Down’s and as a result of that assumption either patronized me or treated me with contempt. And that my heart wasn’t open to the students with Down syndrome as fellow human beings in the same way it was for my other classmates. It would never have occurred to me that any one with Down’s could be a good friend to me in a genuinely meaningful way.
Then one day I was in tears while riding home from a particularly emotional day at school; a day full of the usual reasons for teenage angst. I was trying to explain the problem to the driver, with whom I’d become quite good friends by this point, but nothing she said consoled me at all. And then Jennifer, the young woman who always sat behind me on the bus, gently reached over the back of my seat, touched my shoulder, and said “it’ll be okay”, and somehow I knew she was right.
Now, ordinarily, there is no way another person can say whether something will (eventually) be okay for another person, so it wasn’t her words that convinced me. It was something about her tone. She knew how to say it so that I felt both loved and very reassured. That’s a kind of social subtlety that I have longed to master ever since, but never have.
I wish I could say we became friends after that, but alas, it was only possible for my heart to be cracked open a tiny bit at that point in my life, and it wouldn’t be till decades later that I would receive the full impact of that experience. In fact, I imagine that the full impact will still be making itself felt for the rest of my life.
In my spiritual practice and beliefs, there is that of G-d in all of us, or in more Atheistic terms, there is that fully human spark in all of us. Either way, there is commonality in all people, or at least it is best for my psychological growth to assume that of everyone I meet. I’ve known this in principle since I began my spiritual journey when I was in my early teens, but like many spiritual truths, it is one thing to hear such words, it is another thing to internalize them. The former took an instant; the latter has taken decades.