David hates wearing clothes, watches the Lion King once a month, likes to have the fan on in winter and finds it hysterically funny when someone bumps their head. He also sleeps with at least eight teddy bears and has quite a large collection of handkerchiefs and paintbrushes stored under his pillow.
David is my brother who has a rare combination of autism and Down’s syndrome. He is the baby of our family and is the quirkiest person I know. He has been our source of joy for the last twenty-six years and we love him to bits. We call him Dibby.
As you can imagine a lot of the funny things we enjoy in our home aren’t always understood when we step outside. He is a big twenty-six-year-old man with a moustache and a booming voice, but he also has the mind of an innocent child. This can be quite confusing and at times alarming for the public. Mothers sometimes hurry their children away as David lumbers towards them excitedly because he has spotted their bottle of coke and wants it for himself. Instances like this cause our whole family to surge forward to rescue whoever is being ambushed. Later we talk about these times over a meal and chuckle. He makes us laugh like no one else we know.
David loves people and is convinced everybody loves him too. If he is especially fond of someone he bestows a nickname on them. He unfortunately named me after a rather hairy, grumpy Lhasa Apso called Timmy. I was slightly unsure at first but then decided that the dog was kind of cute. Most others are named after his favourite foods like fried egg, chutney or parantha. There once was a man we weren't too sure he liked very much whom he called "Pickle."
When we go out for a movie or visit a restaurant David often insists on shaking the guard’s hand or greeting the doorman. Sometimes when a street kid begs at his car window he opens it to talk to them or takes a toy they are trying to sell. He isn’t impressed by how well-dressed people are, or disgusted by how smelly and dirty they are. He doesn’t understand that some are educated and some are not. If a person is friendly with him, he likes them and it makes his day.
There is of course the more difficult side to his life as well. While most people seem to enjoy his uninhibited friendly nature, not many take the time to build relationship with him. He sometimes sits alone in a crowded room while everyone chats with each other. With his limited vocabulary, communication is quite difficult. He loves it when people take the time to talk and though he understands most of what they say, he can’t respond. He can’t share how he feels, what he thinks or even what he wants. He doesn’t have friends in the way we do. There are times when he has outbursts because even we can’t understand him. We have sometimes found him crying by himself and he cannot tell us why. It pains us that he cannot talk to us. It hurts when we see him hurting and isolated by his disability.
A few months ago my husband, Akshay, launched his book The Whistler in the Wind in the India Habitat Centre and wanted David to be the chief guest. David always makes his presence felt so we were slightly apprehensive about him being in the limelight for such a formal event. The plan was that he would sit with the audience until the latter part of the evening. But right at the beginning, to my parent’s horror, David suddenly got up and strode onto the stage to sit with Akshay and his father, whom the book is about. He then proceeded to drink everybody’s water and stole the gift that was to be presented to him at the end of the evening. He even tried to take the microphone and speak to the audience whenever he got the chance. We were a little worried about how the audience would react but they actually seemed to enjoy him. It was lovely to see someone like David honoured and valued.
I think these instances bless God. I don’t think God is too keen on the formal, stiff, uptight occasions. I think He likes laughter and fun. I think He loves it when people like David are celebrated and honoured. However, our shame-based culture can sometimes make us feel like we should hide people like David. We seem to live under a constant fear of what others think of us. A child who fails his twelfth grade boards carries the weight of "shaming" his whole family. Parents would rather their daughter stay with her abusive husband than divorce him and cause "shame" to fall on the family. I’ve heard of some families who never take their differently abled child out because they fear the perceptions of others. The child is locked up at home for most of their life. All this makes me wonder, "What can we do to change this? What can the church do?"
It would be nice if people like David were given more of a place in our churches. Our communities should be taught to enjoy them. Our children should be taught to respect them. We must challenge the thinking that a person’s value lies in how they look or what they can or can’t do. David is a man, made in the image of God, trapped in a body that does not allow him to live a "normal" life. But this does not make him lesser than you or I. There is much we can learn from people like him when we give them the space they deserve in our communities.
I am thankful that David is in a church where he is allowed to be himself. He sits with the congregation and plays the congas during worship. When people are invited to come up and pray he sometimes prays loudly in his own language and the whole congregation says "amen." How beautiful it is when someone like David becomes a part of the Body of Christ. They represent God in a perfectly unique way. They are uninhibited and freer than any of us will ever be and God can use them in unexpected and powerful ways in our lives if we look past their disabilities and see their beauty.