Last week I stepped out of my comfort zone and into a dilapidated church hall in Brighton where I played table tennis with a group of young adults with learning disabilities.
I didn’t distinguish myself. I’ve always had a problem with physical co-ordination. Anyone caught in the hailstorm of ping-pong balls I sent on to the floor might conclude that I had a learning disability of my own.
Though they probably wouldn’t say so. These days “learning disability” is the official euphemism for people who were once described as “mentally handicapped” and, before that, “retarded”. It’s the only acceptable formulation and you’re certainly not allowed to use it flippantly, as I just have.
On the other hand, the disability language police don’t seem terribly concerned about people with learning disabilities, just as long as you label them correctly.
The youngsters in the hall were laughing and joshing with each other. Although in their 20s, they were childishly excited by an activity that, I dare say, would produce groans of boredom from actual children. Many of them had Down’s syndrome, and in my experience people with that condition have a special gift for exuberance.
You don’t have to spend much time in their company before it rubs off on you. But that wasn’t the whole explanation for the cheerfulness in the hall. The table-tennis players had a range of learning disabilities. Some of them were quite capable of understanding that, if the activities hadn’t been laid on for them, they’d be sitting at home – perhaps in the funereal surroundings of a Brighton bedsit in November. So there was also a sense of relief in the air.
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