For a number of years in the 1980s, I had the pleasure of directing a handbell choir made up of men and women with developmental disabilities. Since none of them read music, we used a number code system to play chorales, folk hymns and even a few popular songs. We had great fun and, two or three times every month, we performed for church and community groups in southeast Wisconsin. Then, we got a call from a Seminary in St. Louis. “Please figure out a way to get here”, they said, “We’d love to have you!” They went on to offer overnight accommodations, financial assistance with air travel and an audience hungry to hear and learn from people with disabilities.
None of the choir members had ever flown before, and I was excited for the adventure. In addition to a concert, a conference, and a worship service on the seminary campus, we scheduled concerts at an elementary school and an assisted living center. We were going to make use of every moment we had.
Our two-day schedule in St. Louis was packed and every experience was successful. By the end, we were absolutely exhausted.
The 1980s were a different time for airport security and it was not at all unusual for a group leader to take a handful of paper boarding passes to the gate agent for a mass check-in, which is exactly what I did. Standing directly in front of me in line was a man in a light gray pinstripe suit who observed a group of people with noticeable developmental disabilities waiting in his gate area. He turned to me and said, with more than a hint of irritation, “What do you suppose they are?” Not “who” they are, but rather, “what”. After all we had been through in the previous 36 hours — the travel, the set-up, the musicianship, and the teaching — this beautiful, selfless, hard-working group of artists had been reduced to that. “What”.
I was tired and annoyed with him, so, I simply held up my handful of boarding passes and said, “They’re musicians.” Our conversation ended, he checked in, and took a seat a very safe distance from my traveling companions.
As I completed my check-in process, I noticed that Robert, one of my choir members, had apparently observed my brief conversation with the man and assumed we were good friends. He took a seat directly next to man, presumably telling all about our last two days, or, maybe he was telling the man his entire life story. I couldn’t help but smile.
As we made our way onto the plane, I met a flight attendant coming the opposite direction in the aisle. Speaking to another member of the crew, she said, “We’ve got to make a change in 16A.” The seat in question was in an exit row and one of my choir members was sitting in it. At the time – and maybe still today – FAA regulation excluded someone with a disability from sitting there. “The passenger assigned there is…”, and she paused, knowing that many people were listening. She wanted to get the right descriptive word, but she paused. And in that pause, another voice was heard. “He’s a musician,” the voice said. It was the man in the gray pinstripe suit. “He’s a musician”.
“Yes”, the flight attendant smiled, “He’s a musician.”
I have no idea what ever became of that man. Perhaps he was changed by the experience, perhaps not; however, there was a powerful lesson learned that day, and I was the one who learned it. If our aim is a change in understanding, attitude, or acceptance toward people with developmental disabilities, it will not happen through even the best formal programs, the greatest group presentations, or the most enlightened public policy. The change will be made through the doorway of relationships. It will happen one story at a time, one shared experience at a time, one unexpected encounter at a time.