I'm Not Sorry My Sister Has Down Syndrome

“I’m sorry.”

I can vividly recall the exact moment I first heard those two little words in a brand new context.

They caught me completely off guard and left me confused. Those two little words momentarily stalled my train of thought and prevented me from uttering a coherent response.

From conversations I’ve had with many parents and siblings of individuals with disabilities, I realize I’m not alone in remembering this encounter in striking detail. It was a moment I’ll never forget.

In all previous situations, those two little words had demonstrated empathy, concern, and genuine care.

However, in this context, those two little words didn’t seem appropriate at all. Instead, “I’m sorry” suddenly became a phrase that made me realize how truly blessed I was.

Sitting with my steaming hot cup of coffee at a small local shop, I was waiting for a friend. At the table next to me, a younger, professionally dressed gentleman sat with his laptop out, busy working.

I can’t remember how we began chatting or exactly what questions were asked, but like I often do when talking with complete strangers, I remember sharing something about my younger sister, Sarah. It may have been a comment about how inviting and caring her demeanor is. Or it could’ve been a story about how she’s able to bring a smile to the face of anyone who encounters her.

Whatever I said, I know it had to do with how Sarah has completely changed the trajectory of my life, and my family members’ lives — for the better.

I forget what the gentleman asked me, exactly, but I began responding with, “Sarah has Down syndrome and –”

Immediately, the man’s eyes darted away from me and back to his laptop as he mumbled those two little words, “I’m sorry.”

Sometime after this chance encounter at the coffee shop, I remember reflecting on how that conversation made me feel.

I was never angry at the talkative and friendly stranger. He hadn’t intended to hurt my feelings or to pass judgement on me or my family. He was simply at a loss for words and did his best to say what he thought was appropriate given the situation. He was just unaware.

That day in the coffee shop, I was glad my friend was running a few minutes late because it gave me time to briefly share with this complete stranger how truly blessed I was by having Sarah in my life.

What did I enjoy most about this chance encounter? That I could offer a new and positive perspective to a total stranger.

Who knows who this gentleman has come into contact with since our conversation. Does he see individuals with disabilities any differently now? Maybe he chooses to extend a kind smile and a warm, “Hello there” to someone who he wouldn’t have in the past.

For me, this experience opened my eyes to the reality that not everyone shares my optimistic perspective on having a sibling with a disability. Sarah is truly a blessing in my life, personally, and she is the inspiration for what I do professionally. But other people have different perspectives, which makes it all the more important that I keep telling about Sarah and sharing how everyone has the ability to have an impact in the lives of others.

How are you raising awareness, promoting acceptance and changing perspectives?

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A version of this post appeared on Enable

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