Equity is a concept always prevalent in my mind, but recently moreso. In just this past few months I transitioned from working for the wealthiest of people in the catering industry, to some of the most marginalized - adults with disabilities, in the non-profit sector. I had experiences with young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities as a student participant in Best Buddies at Georgetown University. The individuals I encountered were spirited, engaged, and shared their infectious joy so willingly and without conditions. This change in work would be a welcome one; I was certain I would be well equipped and thrive.
I reported to my new position with images from Best Buddies of happiness, inclusion and youth in my mind. I was granted the chance to combine my love of service with my strategic and entrepreneurial skills. This union had been a goal of mine since graduating from a Jesuit institution that instilled a personal urgency to place service well before myself. It was finally coming together.
My initial reactions were different than I anticipated. There I was arrogantly believing I would have every answer, flourish in my role, and adapt with ease to this new opportunity. I met some of the individuals the organization supports on my first day and had difficulty communicating. I was discouraged. How would I bridge the gap that significant barriers and impairments have placed between us? How can this be fair? My mind began to wander, panic ensued, and I felt helpness. I was not familiar with atypical behaviors as I hadn't experienced them in abundance before. My ignorance was manifesting as sorrow. I was saddened by what I perceived to be an unfortunate circumstance, to be an adult with multiple disabilities, to be entirely nonverbal, to be deaf as well as blind. I labeled reliance on other people as some sort of tragedy, my own ableist prejudice clouding my vision. As much as I would like to deny that prejudice exists, it does exist. Our society all too often reinforces it; just pick up a magazine or watch the news. Differences are not publicized. Instead we strive for beauty, sameness, and the predictable. Whatever is typical and safe. From this vantage point, I saw only the negatives and the can'ts. Gone were the images of youthful students participating in activities on Healy Lawn at Georgetown, grilling hamburgers, singing karaoke. This was unlike anything I could have expected.
In the days that followed, I got immersed in the lives of the individuals we support. I asked for help, figured out how to communicate, and asked endless questions. I read articles, watched publicized talks, consulted my priest, bought books, and interviewed my peers. I extended my hands and opened my heart. I am embarassed to say that for a brief moment my heart, in a well-intentioned fashion, was closing me off to all the possibility in the situation. I learned basic Sign Language, I broadened my understanding of developmental disabilities, intellectual disabilities, and deafblindness, and became educated on how to handle potentially difficult situations.
My unfounded fears became knowledge, my sadness and misguided compassion became power.
People I encountered, my now role models, told me that there is no right or wrong: disability is neutral. We just learn as we go, and help to ensure the best possible outcomes. We embrace that every human being experiences the world in a different way.
Unrealistically so, I decided in my mind a long time ago I would never be able to work with truly vulnerable people, in nursing homes, shelters, or hospitals. I told myself I was too sensitive, and these experiences would undo me. All along, I was making assumptions about the vulnerable's quality of life. It was not premeditated malice, more likely it was automatic - cultural norms forming the basis of my understanding of the world. This reasoning grounded in emotion was damaging and it skewed my perceptions. I transformed my discomfort with inequity to faith in diversity. I've seen firsthand that sadness is debilitating and helps noone. The same goes for pity. Hope however, hope begets action. Compassion. Compassion sparks change and inspires inclusion.
I've stopped trying to fix things in my mind. Fixing doesn't readily happen. Through my daily encounters, my belief is affirmed that anything worth truly having would be available to everyone. There are no conditions for fitness or value. A prestigious job, lavish home, an abundance of friends, self reliance, and beautiful possessions while all appealing are not prerequisites for worthiness. The sum of our things does not equate to worth as human beings. or we would be human havings. Alas, our only requirment is to be.
We are all equal parts of one societal whole. I conceptualize in food so I am envisioning this abundant pie, bursting with tender apples. We all reside as parts of this pie, slices if you will. No one person is truly self-sufficient, and if we perceive that we are, we are mistaken. It is our interdependence that makes us whole. Not strength, nor power, nor wealth.
I no longer believe that reliance on support is a tragedy. I think reliance enhances our compassion, and broadens our connections as a people. Together we are an intricate whole. A perfect pie.
I no longer feel like we deseve a gold star or pats on the back for being decent human beings. I no longer believe in patronizing behavior. While I always knew the individuals I met in Best Buddies were serving me far more than I was serving them, this understanding has been dramatically expanded in light of my recent experiences. Individuals that we all too easily dismiss have taught me these lessons. They have reaffirmed that love is the only currency worth measuring. To me that is true power.
The most vulnerable among us enable those all too often distracted to see that simply being is enough.
I have furthered my understanding in writings, talks, and the wisdom of others. Here are some resources I highly recommend...
This book, by a teacher from my high school. I discovered his work through my research, and was overjoyed to make this connection.
This article, by a woman who has dedicated her life to empowering individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
This TedTalk about acknowledging that our speech may stigmatize disability, breed judgment, and divide us.