The Special People Club

Rob teaches an adaptive karate class at a center for adults with developmental disabilities. (Last I heard that was the preferred term, but recently I heard ‘intellectual disabilities’ which I don’t care for.)


I assist with the class. We have a few regulars, although not all of them retain what they’re taught. Some of them have limited mobility and dexterity, a few don’t speak and a few don’t hear.

We have some favorites. A woman in her 50s is the most skilled. She knows which arm and leg to punch and kick with when we hold up a focus mitt. Sometimes she excitedly tells one of us about an event in her life, but we don’t understand her. Once I think she was talking about a really little cat belonging to her sister. She likes Disneyland. She also likes to draw pictures for Rob.

A man, who has an unfortunate problem with flatulence, stutters a bit and tends to speak in one- or two-word sentences, but his face lights up when he sees us. He likes gadgets with blinking or bright lights on them, so he always shows us whatever flashing keychain he’s packing. A few weeks ago he had on a shirt with, like, restroom symbols for a man and a woman dressed as a groom and bride and it said “Game over.” He told us he got it at Target. (I went out and bought one for Rob the next day) Yesterday he had on a shirt with a bunch of beer bottles on it and said “Life is full of important decisions.” He told us that came from Fred Meyer. We wonder if he gets the jokes on his shirts. He always calls out “Butterfly” when we do the butterfly stretch and yesterday when we did bicycle crunches, he announced, “I’m riding my bicycle.” When Rob said we’d be practicing front kicks, he said “Side kicks,” so Rob taught those too. For some reason, I found everything he said yesterday to be very amusing.

The other surprising thing is that I’ve grown fond of an Asian guy who completely freaked me out when I first met him. I’d been coming to the class for a while when he turned up. He asked me my name and if I’d spell it for him, and he wrote it down on a folded piece of paper he kept in his pocket. He also sort of leered at me, which made me uncomfortable.

That first day, a photographer from the local paper was there for a little profile on one of Rob’s students. The Asian guy followed the photographer out into the hallway and asked if he could come home with her.

Then he did the same to me, actually following us out to the car.

“Where do you live? … “I come to your house. I sleep in your house.”

I handled it poorly, I think, when I said, “You can’t say things like that to people. That’s crazy talk.”

We’ve seen him a number of times since then, and frequently he asks my name and how to spell it.

“Your name? … Spell.”

He started asking Rob’s name, too. Once he asked me to spell various body parts of mine, like elbow, hand, face. Rob put a stop to it.

The director of the center has asked us, “Was he asking how to spell things? He’s not supposed to do that.”

I had such an aversion that Rob would make him stand at the other end of the room from me and rarely asked me to work with him one on one.

Somewhere along the line, however, he stopped seeming so creepy to me. He likes to hold his hands in his pockets, and Rob usually has to remind him to keep his eyes to the front (Instead of on me, or whatever volunteer from the college is helping us out that day).

His standard response to any statement is first, “What?” and then “Yesss?” which sometimes seem to be part of a conversation:

“What’s going on?”
“You coming to class?”

And sometimes not:

“Hey there.”
“How are you doing?”

I actually felt very warm toward him during class last night. He didn’t even ask me to spell my name.

There’s this movie, The Ringer, which Rob rented a week or so ago. The premise sounds offensive. Johnny Knoxville pretends to be Special, so he can compete in the Special Olympics. Many of the actors have developmental disabilities. One of them does some of the commentary on the DVD, and seems to really enjoy being a celebrity. He even has a blog.

Rob wondered whether the folks from his class would actually appreciate the movie, rather than feel mocked.

“Imagine going your whole life and never seeing someone like you in the movies,” he said. (Guess that was the idea behind the TV show Life Goes On.)

I’ve wondered if they recognize when someone has a disability. Like when they first meet a new volunteer at the center, do they instantly know it’s a volunteer and not a new member? Actually there’s a woman who’s been there the last few times and I can’t tell if she’s a member or a volunteer. It seems inappropriate to ask.

Published by Kari Neumeyer

Writer, editor, dog mom, ovarian cancer survivor

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