In early 1988, I was at a meeting where I was being introduced for a presentation by the president and CEO of the company that invited me to speak. Their company manufactures communication devices and I was invited to speak to people from all over the country who wanted to learn about their products. He introduced me by saying, “When I think of the mentally retarded, I think of Gail Van Tatenhove.” The audience slightly gasped at what seemed to be an insult. I laughed, thanked him, and proceeded to tell everyone that I viewed his comment as a high form of praise. I still consider it high praise because of my 40+ years of experience with people with mental retardation who use speech generating devices. (Note: I recognize my experience is not the same as everyone else’s experience. My observations are mine alone, based on my experiences.)
First off, they are honest. In the course of my adult life, I have put weight on and taken it off, and then back on. My family and friends have never made comments to my face, but the same can’t be said about the people with mental retardation with whom I work. One once said, “Ms. Van, you fat again.” It was simply a factual observation and said without the judgement, meanness, or criticism.
Second, they are transparent. When they are upset, you know they are upset. When they are happy, you know they are happy. When they want something, they tell you. Most people with mental retardation don’t worry about hiding how they feel or what they want. Most are open books who don’t concern themselves with their public image.
Third, they are vulnerable. Most people with mental retardation are susceptible to bad things happening to them. That, of course, is the terrible way in which they are vulnerable. But they are also vulnerable in a good way because they are fully willing to open up to you. They don’t keep people at arm’s length in order to protect themselves. They are going to get hurt, just like all of us, but they still invite people into their lives.
Fourth, they are trusting. Over the years, people with mental retardation have trusted me with their dreams to marry and have families, their grief at losing a parent, and their faith and hope in a better life in heaven. One teen-ager even trusted me enough to tell me about how she went skinny dipping and lied to her mom about it. I’ve hypothesized that, in my job with them as a speech-language pathologist, I’ve been the one giving them words and teaching them to use them. The natural extension of that might be that they trust me with their words.
Lastly, they are appreciative. The majority of the time that I show up to do therapy, the person with mental retardation lights up. I can do the littlest thing for them, and they say “thank-you.” On days when I’m tired and dragging, their appreciation for me lifts me up. Maybe they are simply appreciative for a break from their routine and a bit of fun with me, but it still encourages me.
So, let’s rephrase that compliment…. When I think of a person who is honest, transparent, vulnerable, trusting, and appreciative, I think of Gail Van Tatenhove. That is high praise to which I hope to aspire every day.