During a heated discussion about a story about gay rights that was in the newspaper five years ago, the adults in a day program quoted the Bible, called gay people "sick," and generally denounced the entire LGBT population for personal and religious reasons. A gay man in the group remained quiet.
Then something amazing happened. One of the three male staff said, "How many of you have had people say the same things about you?" Another staff said, "The same things you are saying about gay people used to be said about people like you. In some countries disabled children are killed when they are born."
The room got quiet. One person said, "My mother said when I was born with CP (cerebral palsy) that her best friend told her it was too bad I wasn't stillborn." The others reacted, some in shock, others bowing their head knowingly.
"If you want people to treat you with respect and give you equality, don't you think you should extend that same right to other people, regardless of your personal feelings." One of the adults who also had CP said it wasn't the same.
"How isn't it the same? What makes your right to live a typical life to the best of your ability different than anyone else's right to do so?" asked the behavior specialist visiting that day. "Give me some examples of people who should not have equal rights?"
One of the adults said black people and several of the black adults reacted immediately. It took all three of the African-American male staff to calm them down and then one asked the adult who said it what he meant. "Black people didn't have equal rights until Lincoln freed the slaves."
"They still didn't," said one of the black adults. "That's why Martin Luther King had to march and fight for us to have equal rights." One of the staff immediately segued back to the topic of gay rights. "That's what gay people are doing now! They're marching for equal rights just like black people did."
"But black people can't help being black," said the black adult male with CP. "You can help being gay. It's a choice." An argument ensued on that issue and everyone got very quiet when the gay male said, "I didn't choose to be gay. I wanted to be straight, but I don't like girls. It's just the way I am."
Everyone was very quiet. Then one of the staff said, "You know Marvin (not his name) and you are friends with him, right?" Several nodded their heads, looking at each other uneasily. "Does that change now that you know he's gay?" One of the adult males made a joke and the others laughed.
"What did you say?" one of the staff asked. "I said I won't be going in the bathroom when he's in there!" Several of the adults snickered "Why not?" asked another staff. "Has he ever approached you in the bathroom or said anything to you that made you feel uncomfortable?"
The adult shook his head "no" and said, "I'm sorry, Marvin. That was a mean thing to say. I was just trying to be funny. I'm sorry." Marvin smiled, his face red and said, "I'm used to it." This is the only place I'm accepted. My family hates me because I'm gay." Everyone looked at him in silence for a moment.
Then, one by one, each of the adults, went over and gave Marvin a hug, as did the male staff and the behavior specialist. Marvin cried as the behavior specialist held him and took him out of the room to talk to him privately.
This scenario shows how staff, teachers, and parents can help the people they serve and their children learn to accept people with different life styles, even when those life styles conflict their own personal and religious beliefs. The following scenario presents a different picture.
The three African-American staff either got promoted to management positions or got other jobs and were replaced by three religious fundamentalists who were told by some of the adults that Marvin was gay. The three of them literally preached sermons, quoting scriptures condemning gays repeatedly.
Marvin started attending the day program less and less. When he did attend the other adults treated him badly, ridiculing him and excluding him from activities. A lower functioning female started attending the program and she became his only friend.
However, he could not take any more of the ridicule from his old friends who were always finding fault with him when they weren't excluding him from activities. The behavior specialist saw this and tried talking to the other adults privately and in small groups and they denied being anti-gay.
They found many excuses and reasons for treating Marvin badly and continued to do so with the staff's silent approval. The staff also ignored or criticized him and continued their condemnation of gay people within his hearing. One day Marvin told the behavior specialist he wanted to die.
She talked to him several times and reminded him of all the things he had to live for, so he decided that since he was treated well at another day program he attended one day a week, he might start going to that day program more. The behavior specialist encouraged him to stay and work things out with his friends.
One of the three religious fundamentalists left and was replaced with another staff that was accepting and that did not like the way Marvin was treated by staff and his peers. However, it was too late and Marvin left the program and started attending the other program daily.
The above two scenarios examine how personal views about subjects like gay rights, gay marriage, and being gay in general can affect the lives of individuals who are LGBT when they are treated differently because of their sexual orientation; and it shows how staff can model acceptance.
These two scenarios are not typical of staff that work with children and adults with special needs. A study conducted in adult residential facilities for the cognitively disabled in Germany that was published in Disability Studies Quarterly, staff in such facilities usually do not discuss homosexuality.
"When talking about their clients' heterosexual desires, however, care workers tend to talk in a more accepting, sometimes even benevolent manner. Only homosexual behavior is described as strange, not normal and has to be explained" (Dudek, Jeschke, & Lehmukuhl, 2006).
Although reluctant to talk about homosexuality, staff attitudes about LGBT residents is very clear. According to this study, homosexuality is treated as taboo and their residents who are gay are devalued and not supported by staff, although there is no overt discrimination as in the second scenario.
It is very likely that people working in this field and who have children with developmental disabilities will have to answer questions about sexual orientation. The following recommendations may help teachers, parents, and other caregivers working in this field to deal with this issue:
1. Allow your child, student, or an adult for whom you provide services to discuss feelings about gay people, regardless of how you feel personally.
2. Try to determine if the individual has personal reasons for disliking gays or is repeating things s/he has heard other people say and/or imitating other people's attitudes and behaviors.
3. If prejudicial attitudes are expressed, remind the individual expressing them that people with disabilities are often treated unfairly and would not have equality without the ADA.
4. Do not make this an issue, regardless of your personal or religious beliefs because you want to provide your student, child, or people you serve with the skills to interact with people socially, regardless of difference.
Dudek, S.; Jeschke, K.; & Lehmkuhl, U. (2006) Institutional queers: Homosexuality in residential facilities for people with cognitive disabilities. Disability Studies Quarterly, 26(2). www.dsq-sds.org