By Amberley Romo, sibling of an individual with I/DD and student in China
I’m currently halfway across the world from my sister Caroline studying the Chinese language in Beijing. But I’ve never felt closer to understanding her than I do right now; I can’t believe I had to come all the way to China to understand just a little bit better what every day is like for her.
My sister is incredibly unique; She is almost always infectiously excited and happy, and has a dynamic personality that lights up any room. She is obsessed with dogs, adores babies and her favorite thing in the world is cooking with our mom. She also has a genetic disorder called Angelman Syndrome. Caroline is essentially nonverbal, but like most people with Angelman Syndrome, her intelligence and understanding of what’s going on far surpasses her ability to communicate about it. She is astoundingly emotionally attuned.
Outside of our family and close friends, who understand Caroline’s modified sign language and body language, Caroline has never been able to effectively communicate with strangers without the aid of a communication device. It’s gotten better through the years: We’ve gone from Boardmaker laminated squares with Velcro on the back, to a dinosaur-sized DynaVox augmentative communication device, to the Proloquo2Go app on an IPad.
A New Perspective
I began to see things from Caroline’s perspective when I signed a pledge to speak only Chinese from Monday through Friday for my language immersion program.
I’ll be frank: I’m not exactly fluent. (I started learning eight months ago.) All of a sudden day-to-day interactions such as ordering from a menu and asking directions can induce a panic attack. I’m very aware of how much attention and help I need, especially when there is a line of people behind me waiting for something; I feel guilty. And the pressure of the expectant look on the face of the person who’s waiting for me to ‘get it’ only makes me shut down more.
“I have an Easy Button”
And that’s just the beginning. What’s most frustrating about being limited to only Chinese isn’t that Chinese is difficult (although it certainly is!), it’s suddenly having difficulty expressing the deeper thoughts and complex feelings and needs with the ease to which I am accustomed in English. Every thought-expression is a conscious process, if not always a linguistic battle.
The first time I felt the ‘shut down’ moment I was trying to have a conversation in Chinese with my roommate. I got to the point where I just wanted to put my face in my hands and block her out. At that moment, I had an extreme sense of déjà vu. With Caroline, if something got too hard or too frustrating, she would put her face in her hands to shut us out. The realization felt like being backhanded; before I even realized the connection I had made, I felt like crying.
But ultimately, I do have an “easy-button.” I can simply opt-out of the language pledge. For Caroline, there is no “opting out.” Even though I have a deeper understanding, I can never know what it’s like to not have that escape hatch, and I have so much more appreciation for her efforts.
Amberley Romo, 21, is a recent graduate of American University and worked for The Arc’s Washington, D.C. office as an intern and brand coordinator. She is currently enrolled in a language immersion program in Beijing, China. She is also a member of The Arc as a sibling and a supporter of the movement for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Arc recently launched a National Sibling Council and has partnered with the Sibling Leadership Network to engage people like Amberley as they face the unique challenges and rewards that come from being a sibling of someone with I/DD.