I'm sitting at Starbucks (that's a worldwide chain of coffee shops), checking email, making phone calls, "sipping my triple tall non-fat latte," and thinking about the fact that people with Down Syndrome make me uncomfortable.
My fear is that if I make eye-contact with a Down Syndrome person they will talk to me, I won't understand them, and then I'll feel embarrassed. (Yes Virginia, this phobia is "all about me").
So this particular Starbucks employs a young woman who has Down Syndrome. (I was going say "is afflicted" or "is a victim" of Down Syndrome, but my lack of knowledge of this syndrome leaves me wondering if "afflicted" or "victim" are appropriate descriptions).
The young woman's job is to dust, sweep the floor, clean the display case, bus the tables, and water the plants. She goes about her business with extreme diligence and a broad smile.
So I was sitting there working on a quote for a customer, when my fear became a reality. The relative quiet of the establishment was broken with the words, "So how are you doing today?" I glanced up to see the beaming young woman looking right at me. With a small amount of anxiety I replied, "I'm doing great. How are you?"
It seems impossible but her smile got even bigger. "I'm great too but thank God it's Friday." With that she waved and walked off to continue dusting the Tazo Tea display.
"Thank God it's Friday?" Did she really just say "Thank God it's Friday?" Does that mean that there's a discernible difference between this day and any other day in her life? That perhaps a Saturday spent with family or friends, or by herself, is an appealing alternative to working her shift at Starbucks?
Does this mean that she doesn't just meander her way through the day oblivious to what's going on around her? She has good days and bad days... not just "days?"
I am beyond guilty of not understanding the nuances of life that a person with Down Syndrome experiences. It never occurred to me that she would have a thought like "Thank God it's Friday." I assumed that every day was the same for her and others with Down Syndrome. In my ignorant mind they seem blissfully disconnected from the challenges of day-to-day life.
I realized at that moment that I know nothing about Down Syndrome and I let my fear and assumptions dictate how I would interact with people like her.
She walked back to me, carrying a tray of Dixie Cups. This time I noticed her name tag: Stephanie.
"Would you like to try a Caramel Apple Spice?"
"Sure." She stood, waiting for me to taste the drink. I did. I didn't like it.
"How is it," she asked?
Up until about five minutes ago I would have avoided telling her the truth, fearful that I might hurt her feelings or confuse her.
"Actually Stephanie, it's too sweet for me."
"Yeah, too sweet. I don't like them either." She strolled over to the next customer. "Would you like to try a Caramel Apple Spice?" She points at me. "He thinks they're too sweet."
Stephanie walked back to me with a look of slight embarrassment. "My name isn't Stephanie. It's Amber. I left my apron home and had to borrow Stephanie's."
I'm glad that I met Amber. Maybe now I will ignore preconceived ideas that are based on nothing other than vague, uninformed impressions, and realize that the Ambers of the world, just like me, can't wait until the weekend arrives.
Or maybe I'll just continue to meander through the day, oblivious to what's going on around me. I have a lot more practice doing that.