An Open Letter to the Guy Who Yelled, “Ew, Don’t Let Him Touch You!” When I Was Holding Hands With a Special Needs Student

Subject: An Open Letter to the Guy Who Yelled, “Ew, Don’t Let Him Touch You!” When I Was Holding Hands With a Special Needs Student
From: Jason Garramone
Date: 14 Nov 2020

Dear Guy Who Yells,

I’m going to guess that you don’t remember me, but I definitely remember you. We crossed paths, 18 years ago, in high school. I was holding the hand of a student with Down Syndrome, Michael, and you felt compelled to yell, “Ew, don’t let him touch you!”

I was taking a Peer-Helping course which paired “regular,” mainstream students with individuals in the developmental education class. I was accompanying Michael to the library at the other end of the school. The hallway was bristling with throngs of students rushing to get to class. Trying to navigate the hallways in between classes without being jostled was difficult for any student, let alone Michael.

In addition to having Down Syndrome, Michael had visual impairments and had difficulty with stairs. I was holding Michael’s hand as he delicately took the steps one at a time. Stepping up with his right foot, bringing his left foot up onto the same stair, and then starting with the right again. His progress was slow, but steady. This was how he safely navigated the challenge of depth perception on stairs.

Michael and I were almost at the top of the stairs when I heard you, headed in the opposite direction on the other side of the railing, yell out, “Ew, don’t let him touch you!”

I’ve tried to give you the benefit of the doubt that it wasn’t Michael’s hand you didn’t want me to touch, but my hand that you didn’t want Michael to touch. Perhaps you thought I was an abductor who had managed to sneak into the school and what you’d yelled was an attempt to caution Michael. If I’d been 40 years old instead of 17 and looked creepily out of place, this might have made sense and I could grant you a pardon. Unfortunately, it’s painfully obvious that you were targeting Michael because of his disability.

In my weaker and angrier moments, I sometimes wish that the halls hadn’t been so busy and that you hadn’t blended into the crowd of passing students, so that I could have let go of Michael’s hand and administered a vengeful beatdown. While I know that violence doesn’t solve anything, occasionally this still seems like the appropriate response. What I really wish was that there’d been enough time for us to have a conversation.

I would have explained the various challenges that Michael lives with and why I was holding his hand: he chose to take my hand because he trusted me to help him. I would have told you that it’s a privilege to be born without any mental deficits and it’s an honor to be able to provide someone with help.

There are questions I would like to have asked you as well. Why don’t you want me to hold hands with Michael? Do you think that mental differences in cognition are contagious and can be transmitted through touch? Or are you merely revealing that you’re prejudiced and that you think people with a disability are somehow dirty or unworthy of compassion?

I would have gotten you to hold Michael’s hand. You would have felt the warmth of his fingers as they gently closed around your hand, accepting you and putting his trust in you. Hopefully, you would have realized that Michael’s hand is no different than yours or mine.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time for any of that. I shot you a dirty look as you passed, chuckling with your friends. I did the only thing I could do at that time: I held Michael’s hand a little bit tighter.

Since our brief encounter, I’ve enjoyed working with many people with special needs. I was a day camp counselor and a one-to-one support worker for people with special needs and I’ve been a special education teacher for the last 10 years.

I’m curious to know what you’ve been up to for the last 18 years. Do you have children or an ailing grandparent? Have you ever held their hand to offer help, provide a sense of security, or demonstrate affection? I hope you’ve become a more understanding and compassionate person since high school.

If you ever read this, I hope it makes you think about what it means to hold someone’s hand. I hope that if you’re ever helping someone by holding their hand, and someone yells at you, that you don’t let it go. Just hold their hand a little bit tighter.