I hand him a pair of plastic gloves and he takes one gingerly, trying to fit his hand into it. Two of his fingers get cramped into a single pocket and he looks at me for help. I gently nudge his fingers, separating them into different slots.
I take the glove from his hand and then hold up his other hand but the joints are clenched at strange angles. He enthusiastically puts the glove on the other hand but it struggles to fit his hand. Seemingly getting nowhere, I take the other glove, putting it down on the table.
All around us, the canteen bustles with people as they prepare the food for their sandwich.
Leading him slowly to the pot of boiling water, I present to him the ham we are supposed to douse in boiling water. He takes the ham and puts it in the water, visibly excited at being given a chance to finally prepare his own food. His enthusiasm leads him to putting more ham than is physically possible for us to finish. I tell him to stop, but he continues. He doesn’t seem to understand me. I take away the tray of ham from him, and then sits him down. He looks at me, puzzled, but I move on to take the tray of eggs.
We have to boil the eggs now. Eager to help, he stands up excitedly, and tries to put the eggs into the boiling water. I stop him though, because I don’t think he is able to lower the eggs gently enough. I’m afraid that he will end up breaking the eggs instead. He sits down, visibly disappointed. At this moment, I pause, and I look back at him. He smiles at me, seemingly forgetting how I have rejected him once again.
As he smiles, I struggle to keep a lid on my emotions, as they threaten to boil over. I’m touched because the boy I work with bears a childlike naivety and innocence.
I seem to have forgotten all the effort we have made to make this event an inclusive one, one which all can participate in comfortably. When the boy has wanted to try, I’ve instead stolen away his chance.
But perhaps more importantly, he is intellectually disabled.
Despite his intellectual handicap, he has refused to let it be one. He has treasured the opportunity to cook the ham and boil the eggs, cherishing the simple task of preparing his own food. But it is something most of us take for granted, because we are able.
And in that moment, a little boy, intellectually disabled and barely able to fully utilize one hand, had taught me so much about living life to its fullest than I had in my past 19 years.