I believe that all people are valuable contributing members to our human family regardless of his or her perceived disability.
I have been a social worker of some type in many different situations for over ten years. I never imagined myself working with people with developmental disabilities, such as Downs syndrome, when I first finished college. I should tell the truth here. I was so desperate to find my first real job so I took the first job offer I was given. In this job I supervised a group of 10-12 adults with a variety of disabilities who worked in a warehouse. I was like a supportive boss for this group of people and generally made sure the job was getting done. Their job entailed placing different types of bandages into boxes. These boxes would then be sold to re-supply first aid kits. The first thing I did not understand was why these individuals were paid by the piece, not by the hour, and a very low rate at that. The explanation I was given was something like this would motivate people to stay on task, encourage them to work harder, or some other euphemism to explain away why these people were not paid a living wage. I will never forget one woman I supervised who had cerebral palsy. She could not communicate verbally and had very limited use of one hand. In addition, she walked with a very pronounced limp. You can only imagine how hard it was for her to put a band-aid into a small box. She tried so hard! I recall one day after working for about four hours she was able to put 30 bandages into one box. After paying for her ride to work her check was actually a negative amount. She still came in to work. I was beginning to see the person and past what I believed to be her disability.
I next found myself working in Cambodia with orphaned children with disabilities living in a state-operated orphanage. These children’s limbs were so twisted with cerebral palsy that their limbs remained in impossible positions. The poverty of that place did not provide for the special equipment or even basic medical care we have come accustomed to for children with disabilities. It could be said that the environment also became disabling for the children. There was no training for the staff to develop stimulating activities for the children. Often a disability is equated with sin from a past life and an epileptic seizure is described as being “crazy like a pig”. I knew that it must have been difficult for the staff to understand why the children deserved proper care. The children showed them why they deserved to be cared for through their smiles and their sheer will to live. There was a small school at the orphanage. The teachers at that school themselves had no formal training in special education and in fact two of the teachers did not complete high school. Their dedication, though, to the children was nothing short of extraordinary. At times I could not see any potential in those children. There was too much to overcome. I believed the children would not progress far. They would probably never see outside the walls of that orphanage but still the teachers could believe and see the children as just children. They saw the children as children with a future not just bodies with twisted limbs. Their belief helped me to really believe again in the potential of the children
When I returned home I found myself working as an advocate for adults with developmental disabilities. Despite all the medical advances, I still encountered individuals with profound disabilities. I also met individuals with mental retardation who held jobs and could tell me how to use the public bus. They willingly share with me their dreams and hopes. It is not always easy to be near people who cannot always control how they act or their saliva. Some days it is hard to get past unpleasant smells or see a true person when others use labels like “vegetable” or “tragedy”. In my profession we are trained to help those in need but everyday day I still need to remind myself that sometimes just being is more valuable than becoming president, making a new scientific discovery, or being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I have to believe this and strive to continue to see a person with a developmental disability as I see myself…a person with a need to connect to others, a person with dreams, and a person who wants to simply live.
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