February 25, 2005

You Went To The ... Where?!

For someone whose idea of a perfect Saturday afternoon involves productive sessions of mall-hopping between shots of cappuccino, I'm probably the least ideal candidate for a ministry dedicated to the mentally and physically challenged. I've never been around these special "kids", I know next to nothing about them and patience doesn't rate too highly on my list of virtues.

But when the invitation to help out was extended to me, I accepted without hesitation. It was just an outing to the zoo. How hard could it be?

Lots of people who've never been exposed to special "kids" are uneasy around them, downright scared even. I was determined not to be one of those people but when the day came and I was surrounded by a dozen of these "kids", I felt uncertainty creeping in - uncertainty over exactly how to behave and what to expect. Rather ridiculous but my greatest worry at that time was that one of them might lash out and hit me - a fear which, by the way, never came to pass.

That day at the zoo, I was introduced to Linda, a short fair-skinned girl whose head was constantly bent down in fierce concentration on her shoes. I was later told why - being barefoot all the time at home, she wasn't used to cumbersome footwear. Being kept in the house most of the time, she was also uneasy around other people and remained mum during the first half of the outing. I didn't know if I was relieved or disappointed - relieved because my fears of being violently thrashed seemed lost on Linda who appeared to be totally harmless; disappointed because she didn't seem too interested to respond to anything I said.

The entire train ride around the National Zoo was spent with Linda keeping her head stubbornly bent down. While the other special "kids" craned their necks to look out at the giraffes, elephants and tigers we passed, Linda seemed content with just staring at her shoes. Enthusiasm-pumped cries of, "Linda, look! There's the hippo! Wow!" were met with stony silence.

After the train ride, we were to take the "kids" walking around the zoo. That wasn't easy especially when Linda was insistent on kicking off her shoes and walking barefoot, leaving us struggling to put her shoe back on and re-tie the mud-soaked laces over and over again.

It was at the seal show when Linda gave up all resolutions to stay silent. She embarked on a steady stream of laughing, punctuated with occasional screaming and crying fits right in the midst of bewildered zoo visitors. It didn't help matters when she began hitting people, even going as far as attempting to hit a man innocently standing by the aquarium. As I looked the curious and sometimes, hostile expressions on the people's faces, I realised that society had to be exposed to these special "kids" just as much as they, the "kids", had to be exposed to people and not be kept locked hidden away.

Just like me, society's fear and reluctance to accept these special "kids" all boils down to ignorance. Spending a few short hours with Linda showed me that she was, in many ways, just as human as me - we both have our fears, we're terrified when thrown into unfamiliar territory and we're just as stubborn when it comes to getting our own way. By the end of the trip, the fear I'd initially felt vanished, paving the way for a sense of understanding tinged with sadness - sadness because so many of us don't take the time to understand, to sympathise or to care. Sadness because we don't realise how much we get back every time we decide to let these special "kids" into our lives. And sadness because this description fit me more than anyone else.

It was that day at the zoo when I realised just how beautiful these special "kids" really were. Because of these disabilities, they never really "grow" up. They never really learn hatred, bitterness, suspicion and unforgiveness - characteristics that signify our entry into adulthood. There's a vulnerability, an innocence and a sense of trust that's rare and so refreshing. When Linda grabbed my hand in fear of slipping on the muddy ground, I felt like I was holding the hand of a little baby despite her age being so close to mine.

That day at the zoo, I may have missed out on all the animals we were supposed to see but I gained something much more important - I am now a step closer to understanding and empathising with people who are different from me, less fortunate than me. And that, to me, is a lot more important than knowing how many stripes there are on a zebra's back.

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