Jim was a 40 year old man who participated in a day treatment program in a rural community. The program itself was conceived and nurtured by Jim's parents along with other parents who were desperately trying to find non-institutional program options for their children. Jim had cerebral palsy and an intellectual disability. He attended that community program as a school child and eventually 'graduated' into the adult day treatment program. The program grew from providing services to just a few children to several hundred people with developmental disabilities of all ages. The program was an act of love, gifted by parents to their children. That is the best way I can think to describe programs that developed this way.
I am not sure how aware Jim was of all that. He was mostly focused on relationships with people and he had no disability in that social arena.
I had no special relationship with Jim, except that he treated all of the people that he interacted with in a special way. Because of that I loved spending time with him. Who doesn't love spending time with someone who treats them like they are special?
You could always hear Jim before you could see him; he had an uncanny ability to know where you were before he could see you. Perhaps because his vision was poor and his motor abilities were limited he compensated with hearing or something else. He would slowly wheel himself from around a corner, propelling his wheelchair mostly with small wrist movements, and you would hear a characteristic voice with his 'fake' accent that sounded like something out of a Dracula movie: "Chreeeeeestopherrrr.... I vaant to TELL you zomething!"
I have no idea where he got that 'voice' from. Just remembering his voice cracks me up as I think about it.
Five years after I left that facility I was working in a children's hospital in a nearby city. I was working in the orthopedic clinic and I heard that voice from behind one of the closed curtains in an evaluation room, just as if those five years had not even passed. The voice said clearly, "Chreeeeeestopherrrr.... Eeez Zat YOU???? I vaant to TELL you zomething!" Of course it was Jim - who despite his age was still being followed in the developmental disabilities clinics of that pediatric hospital. I couldn't believe that he knew I was there even though he couldn't see me from the other side of that curtain! It was a wonderful reunion, like seeing an old friend again.
There is a special authenticity about those kinds of interactions that is very difficult to explain in words in some blog post.
I got to thinking about this because I was recently reminded about this kind of authenticity in my work at the college. The college has a transitional program for young adults who have developmental disabilities. Those students attend educational classes, some of which are college courses. They are not graded on their efforts but the idea is to promote inclusion and participation. I was fortunate enough to have some of those students in a Freshman level 'Intro to OT' course, and even though I think that the program needs more OTs working in it in a general sense, the participation of those students in the class was positive in just about every way I might think to measure.
What struck me most though was that as the next semester began I would pass by some students from my Intro to OT course as I walked around campus. The students were always polite and friendly, perhaps verbalizing a quick 'hi' or giving a quick head nod along with a fleeting moment of eye contact as they rushed around campus.
That is not how the 'Intro to OT' students from that transitional program acted though. The first response that I got when I saw them was quite different. They ran to greet me, excited to tell me about their summer experiences. One asked for a hug. And it wasn't just that first time, because now they stop by my office or stop me to talk when I am walking around the halls. One of them still wanted to talk about the book I had them read last semester, Tuesdays with Morrie. I think that even though the writing skills are imperfect, one of those students really understood the message in the book. That student wrote:
Morrie said that “This is a part of what a family is about, not just love. It’s knowing that your family will be there watching out for you. Nothing else will give you that. Not money. Not fame. Not work.” So What does this mean to me? To me, it means that yours or my family--mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, friends, teachers etc. will be by our sides no matter what. It doesn’t mean who’s just in our blood, it also means who our friends are who take us in as their sister or brother. You could be famous person and still need your mom or dad to support you. You could have a job that has a bunch of hours and pays at minimum wage while still being happy with what you have. Families are important in our lives, no matter who we are calling family. And we should probably dance with them if we love to dance.
So, I vaant to TELL zomething to OT students who I hope will also have the opportunity to work with people who have developmental disabilities during their careers. It is pretty important that we learn to strip away and look beyond the labels that are placed on people. Sometimes we find ourselves working within systems that apply those labels for what are supposed to be good reasons but sometimes they distract us from understanding that people of all abilities have some important observations to offer and some important contributions to make.
I am not trolling for hugs next semester from my Freshmen students, but I think it is correct to observe that we have a lot to learn from each other, even when our abilities and skills are very different. In particular, I think that we all have more to learn about how we are supposed to care about each other and how we can interact with each other in more authentic ways.
The whole idea of inclusion is that it opens us up to opportunities to interact. It is never going to be enough to just interact though. We have to open our hearts to each other and learn to listen closely to the messages that people have and that we can learn from.
Sometimes they come hidden in fake Transylvanian accents. Sometimes it will come in an essay. Sometimes it will come in the happiness that people experience when you stop long enough to treat them like they are important.
You just never know, and that is why you always have to watch closely for those lessons when they come your way.