Job 1 = My full time job
Job 2 = My in-home care job working with a 96 year old woman
ON staff = overnight staff at in-home care job
Miss L = the wonderful 96 yr old woman I care for at job 2.
The conversation, set in Miss L's kitchen with ON staff, myself, and Miss L present:
ON staff: So, what do you do at your job?
Me: I work in a group home for DD adults.
ON staff: ????
Me: I cook, clean and care for 3 gentlemen with autism, OCD, General learning disabilities, etc.
ON staff: Oh, my goodness, that must be so difficult! Do they talk? Are they violent? Isn't it hard work? How can you do it?
Me: Actually, only one of the guys uses English. The other two are technically non-verbal, but they do a really good job of letting you know what they want and what they don't like. English is not the only language. They use other ways to let us know what's up with them.
And No, they aren't really violent. Not any more than anyone else. They lose their tempers sometimes, but doesn't everyone?
Miss L [very concerned]: Oh, my. That doesn't sound like fun.
ON staff: Are they physically handicapped, too?
Me: Well, the one gentleman has some physical conditions not related to his mental conditions, but for the most part they are really healthy guys.
ON staff: I could never do anything like that. It takes someone so special to be able to do that kind of work. Blah, blah, blah.
Me [embarrassed]: It's nothing all that special, I am just a helper. The guys do all the work, I am just there to help out with things they have trouble doing.
ON staff: Oh, no! You are gifted! You are an angel to those "people"! You are a hero! Blah, blah, blah....
First off, the gentlemen I work with are people, not "people". They are not any different than the guy at the grocery store who sneezes into his hand and then uses that hand to feel up every apple in the produce department. They are no different from that idiot woman we all know who talks in a little girl voice even though she is 55 years old, and carries a pink poodle purse because she thinks it is cool. They are no different from that person we all know who tells jokes that no one understands and then laughs like a donkey. They are no different than all the other people in the world. Everyone has their little quirks and the things they do that aren't really socially acceptable. It's just that some people are better at hiding it than others.
Secondly, I am not and angel, hero, or anything else. I am just someone who has chosen to not be scared by the quirks that the guys I care for have.
I have chosen to see them as regular old people who are lucky enough to have a housekeeper and someone to make sure they remember to brush their teeth. I wish I was that lucky.
It is my theory that the reason "mainstream people" are so uncomfortable with the DD population (and the elderly....and the chronically ill....and the ugly....and anyone else a little "different") is that they are unfamiliar with what makes these people a little "different" and what we don't understand generally frightens us. I think people are afraid. Afraid that they will say the wrong thing, that it is bad to be glad that they are not in the same position, that if they get too close other "mainstream" people will think that there is something "wrong" with them, too. I think people are afraid that they will be pushed to the outskirts of society and forgotten, too, if they associate too closely with folks who are "different". Maybe they are frightened by the fact that folks who are "different" don't always act in predictable ways. Maybe they are a little afraid that somehow the "differentness" will rub off.
That is a load of cow dung, in my opinion.
My Challenge to You, Dear Reader:
Make an effort to become familiar with someone who is normally not someone you would associate with, and try to see the person behind the "differentness".
I don't care if this means working at a food shelf and getting to know the people in your area who really need it, or voluteering in a special ed classroom, or striking up a conversation with the person in a wheelchair behind you in line at the grocery store.
I want you to get beyond the unfamiliarity.
These are all real people. Even though they may not look like you or talk the same way as you, they are real. They think and feel the same way you do. They want to be known as real people.
Think about it...Would you like people to avoid you because of that mole on your shoulder? Or how about because you can't go to sleep at night until you know your shoes are lined up neatly in the closet. What if people avoided you because you had an accent? Or because your hairdresser messed up and dyed your hair green?
Now, I don't want you all going out and thinking that by doing this you will discover that behind the "differentness" you will find angels and martyrs. Like I said, they are real people. This means that some of them will believe things you don't agree with. Some will be cranky. Some will have a passion for baseball cards that you just won't be able to understand.
But that is part of meeting new people. You don't like everyone you meet, do you? Not everyone's passions are the same as yours, right?
I am not asking you to become friends with someone you wouldn't normally be friends with out of some kind of "mercy mission".
Quite the contrary.
I want you to learn to see them as people. People just like all the other people in the world. People you can like or dislike based on the merits of who they are, not the conditions they have.