World Down Syndrome Day 2017 passed on March 21st. This day of celebration and raising awareness is organized by Down Syndrome International to give voice to individuals who aren’t often heard in the mainstream. Although there has been increasing advocacy in Canada for education, opportunities and jobs for people with Down Syndrome, there is still a need for strong advocates who will help others listen to them and work alongside them to build a more equitable society for all people, both with and without disabilities.
My friend Brian Sloan is one such individual. I met Brian when I worked at L’arche Hamilton in 2010-2011, where he shares a home with other core members and the assistants that support them. My wife and I have remained close friends with Brian ever since.
Brian was born with Down Syndrome, a developmental disability caused by an extra chromosome. Down Syndrome can affect a person’s development to a variable degree – some people with the disorder live a very normal life going to school, working at a job and living independently. Others require more assistance.
For Brian, who is in his fifties, he learned from an early age to depend on non-verbal forms of communication and never developed speech. Had he been given some of the opportunities, support and resources that are now available to young children with Down Syndrome, this may have been different, but we’ll never know.
What’s more important is that Brian’s lack of verbal skills does not hold him back from developing close relationships with friends and communicating his desires and emotions. If you ever get a chance to visit Brian, you will instantly discover his incredible ability to help you feel welcomed into his home – most likely by taking your hand and suggesting you spend some time colouring with him. He can be quite convincing and his joy as you colour together will show you the worthiness of this often overlooked pastime.
My friendship with Brian has taught me so much about non-verbal ways of communicating. He uses a moderate number of signs, mostly for activities he enjoys, people in his life, and of course, his favourite foods. But his eyes and his smile communicate so much more than words. I know this when he pulls me close for a hug, when we relax on the couch colouring together, when we’re dancing and laughing along to music, and when I sit with him in silent prayer.
Brian has taught me more about friendship, presence and joy than eloquence could ever express. I forget my fear of judgment when I’m with him and I learn true acceptance of myself and others by his example. He helps me remember that all the ways I communicate with others are important, not just the words I use.
Thank you, Brian, for teaching me language beyond words.