Picture a nondescript room in any city, state or country. There’s a table, around which the Kangaroo court sits, waiting silently for the parents and child or young person with disabilities to enter the room. Brief introductions are made — a map of the table is needed in order to differentiate one court member from the next — and the questioning begins.
Court: “Akiva, what day is today?”
Beth: “Yes, Akiva,” I say, quietly on the side, shifting to English from Hebrew. “What day is today?”
The court rests, with a look that reminds me of Henry B. Swap from Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. That not-so-nice smile that lets you know you’ve been judged and found wanting.
For what? For having developmental delay?
A member of the court shows Akiva a puzzle, perhaps appropriate to a toddler, not an 18-year-old, even one with cognitive issues, and asks, “Akiva, which shape is red?”
Akiva is disinterested. The court is nonplussed. Ira encourages him, and he responds with the color red as well as the different shapes represented in the puzzle as well (he adds in trapezoid, perhaps just to mess with their heads).
Court: “Kol Hakavod, Good job!” And that’s when I saw red.
We were back at the Ministry of Social Services. It was a month since we’d last visited, then for a morning of testing which included a meeting with a psychologist, a doctor, and an evaluator.
We first sat with the psychologist, who was conducting what would be called a psychosocial, gathering information about the family, who’s at home, what Akiva does at home, and what are our needs as well as his.
Akiva, who was being ignored, sat in between us, singing and rocking a bit. He was relaxed even though we’d rushed him through his school lunch in order to get to this appointment.
Psychologist: “He’s a little loud. Can you get him to quiet down?”
I whisper in Akiva’s ear that while I enjoy his singing, could he sing a bit more softly. He continues singing while the psychologist continues her line of questioning, mostly to me, a common problem Ira and I often experience. For some reason, ‘Ima,’ or Mom, is always deferred to when it comes to family matters.
Psychologist: “Does he always do this? Does he always sing so loudly? I can hardly hear myself think!”
She looks at us in a Henry B. Swap sort of way, and while gesturing to Akiva, says to Ira,
“Please just take him out of the room!”
We were shocked. This is his future we’re here to address, from his right — we hope — to live and work in the community, to the monetary support which will be allotted for his needs.
Let’s jump forward again a month to our meeting with today’s Kangaroo court, as the puzzle is brought out, and Akiva is asked to identify which shape is red.
Beth: “Why is he being asked these questions,”
Court: “Oh, we need to figure out his ‘functioning level.’”
Beth: “You already had your chance, a month ago.”
Court: “But we need to just check. It’s standard procedure.”
Is Akiva a monkey, who needs to jump to your bidding? I don’t think so.
If he answers, correctly or incorrectly, what will that gain him in adulthood. A banana?
They have yet to ask him any real questions about his likes or dislikes. His hopes and dreams. Or ours.
The Kangaroo court? They’ve clearly already decided he’s just not worth much to anyone, if these are the kinds of questions they’re asking him. If this is the best they can do to relate to and get to know a person with developmental delay.
And please, please don’t say, “’kol ha’kavod, good job,’ as if he’s a 3-year-old.” He’s had enough ‘awesomes,’ and ‘high-5’s’ to last a lifetime.
How about these questions.
Akiva, when, where, or with whom are you the happiest?
Akiva, do you like musical theater? Which plays are your favorites. And, have you been listening to Hamilton? You have? Cool. I like Hamilton too.
Akiva, what activities do you enjoy best of all?
Be prepared to wait patiently for his responses. Maybe with the help of a facilitator, explore how to mentor him through these kinds of questions. Have a conversation with his teacher, his classroom buddies, his gardening teacher.
I don’t know, make an effort to get to know him. Not as a monkey. As Akiva.
Members of the Kangaroo court, open your hearts and minds. Focus on this individual, this person. He is not high level. He is not low level. He is not Down syndrome. He is not Autism.
He is Akiva.