It’s easy to oversimplify the reality of developmental and cognitive disabilities when we’re trying to empathize with someone. With the best of intentions we say things like “God only gives a burden like this to those strong enough to bear it,” “She must by such a gift to you” and “She must teach you so much.” We pass over the challenges that confront the families of persons with developmental disabilities and the daily commitment of resources, energy and time that are required of them.

Yet there is still truth in those well-meant oversimplifications. I know. Rachel Diane, my 18-year-old granddaughter, has Down syndrome. Rachel is a gift to her parents, who have learned patience—patience with their daughter as well as patience with a culture that’s painfully slow to understand people with developmental disabilities and to provide them with opportunities for a full, productive life.

Rachel is a gift to her younger brother and sister, too, and has taught them what it means to be a family and how their family can be a bulwark, a safe haven, in a sometimes frightening world. When she was six and her little brother was four, some of his schoolmates were making fun of Rachel. He defiantly defended his sister with “She can spell ‘cow’ and you can’t!”