The man — or in some cases, child — who is impaired either physically, mentally, or both, has the luxury of lowered standards in whatever he endeavors to achieve. The ears of his audience become deaf to flat notes while the eyes of his parents become blind to crooked lines and warped symmetry. Nets don’t hang as high and are left wide open. The outcome of what the impaired manages to accomplish is an afterthought — mere appearance of exertion is considered sufficient, even praiseworthy.

Our expectations of such people are not diminished to protect them, but to guard ourselves. The difference between us is in degree, not category. Underestimating the impaired provides a convenient way to overestimate the distance between ourselves and them. The praise with which they are readily showered is thought of as compensation for their endless failures and innate lack of potential. But where is this praise for the average and slightly less-than-average man who also fails each day? Does he not also sweat and strain for hours upon hours? He does. Still, the average man remains unseen because he is not the best and he is not the best at being the worst.

A cognitive handicap at least offers immunity from a far more insidious and soul-eroding variety — an acute awareness of failure. How many individuals endlessly claw their way up statistical mountains in the shape of bell curves for intelligence, income, and fitness, only to tire just before the top, or to reach the peak and find that they cannot make it down the other side where excellence is promised — but never guaranteed — below? Where is their pat on the back? Where are the accolades and standing ovations for those condemned to an existence of perpetual grayness?

Do not pity the impaired. Pity yourself.

By Andrew Mendelson