Sunday, October 22, 2006

Lovely Rita

Loneliness. There is a deep social pain from a sense of isolation in the world. There is a desperation for contact, for affirmation. Years ago I had do to observation in a high school hallway - a few minutes here and you understand why Goodall opted for apes. As big as I am there was an observation point in the school office that allowed me to see the hallway quite clearly. And there she was, Rita, standing alone in the flow of students. They rippled around her the way river water rushes by a reed. She might as well not even have been there. So visible, easy to miss.

For a while she did nothing. Stood, seemingly frozen in time. But then, I saw her face, she looked like she was waiting. They came round the corner, a group of teen boys. If groups of teen boys had a name - like a murder of crows or an exhulation of larks - they would be called a cruelty of boys. One of the boys, perhaps 16, would have been handsome if his face hadn't been scarred by arrogence, waved to her. Rita practically swooned. He broke away from the others and went to speak with her. Her body openned to him - she would have let him do anything. He knew it. So did the others. They found it funny - she knew, but in that moment didn't care.

The referral had been for 'vulnerability' - yes, she was making herself vulnerable. But it should have been for loneliness, for deprivation, for isolation. Here was hurt waiting to happen. One kind or another - both violent but only one a crime. It was hard to watch. Rita learned things from our work together, I taught her the ways of distrust and the purpose of boundaries. She was an eager learner, even if she didn't like all the messages I taught her. She escaped school unbruised but not undamaged.

A few years later, I am doing a workshop for teens with disabilities and I use the training film "No How" that has actors with disabilities in all the starring roles. The teens hated the film. They mocked it. Called out names. They completely disidentified with those with disabilities on the film. They weren't like that. They weren't 'retards' for heaven's sake.

To a one there was desperation on their faces. They looked to me, their teacher, to affirm that they weren't different. That they were 'like everyone else'. I saw their path. Loneliness and self hatred. Denied their community. Denied a simple place to call home. Denied their own individual, unique and beautiful soul.

We need to understand the role that 'community' has for those who are different. We need to understand why there are black clubs, gay bars, and even mensa groups. People need a place to retreat to - to relax into. In our zest for community and integration we have forgotten to incorporate membership - full and complete membership - in the disability community.

Volkswagon beetle drivers often nod to each other when passing on the street. The same happens when I'm in my wheelchair and see another person similarly mobilized. It's a simple acknowledgement, but it's nice. It's a hey, howyadoing. It's a moments recognition of membership. It's nice.

People with intellectual disabilities have a right to community, but more, they have a right to communities. Rita had no where to get affirmation but in a hallway from a cruelty of boys. She needed a teen self advocacy group where she got to laugh, her big beautiful laugh. To flirt, to be wholely adolescent.

There used to be a club in Toronto called the Friday Night Club. I don't know if it's still there. It was a social club for people with intellectual disabilities. I went once, with a group of folks from a group home I was working in years ago, to one of their dances. It was packed. It was loud. It was fun. People their made eyes, made passes, made connections. The atmosphere was electric. I felt the outsider. Like I should have.

I could picture Rita there. Having fun. I could picture those teens at the abuse prevention class all hooting it up. I found myself forgetting that I was staff and just tapping my toes to music. It was nice to be outside looking in ... it reminded me of who I was and more importantly of who they were - who they could be - and who they were when they were outside of scrutiny.

But there are those afraid of segregated activities ... worrying that they will hearken the return of the bad old past of institutionalization and isolation. Their concerns are well founded ... we need to be cautious to never, ever go back there again. But their concerns shouldn't contravene a basic human right ... the right to gather ... to self congregate ... to be alone with like kind.

Loneliness. It's unnecessary when there is a community waiting to happen. Like it does (or did) every Friday night in Toronto.

(If someone reading this knows if the Friday Night Club still exists, could you let me know? Thanks.)

Note to Belinda (my blogprincess) thank you for the hint on posting. That was helpful.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I know I'm responding to this many months late so probably no one will see this (except the blogger). But I agree wholeheartedly. As a Deaf person, I see this with some parents of deaf children. Many hearing and non-disabled parents and other people seem to think that there are only two choices in life for Deaf or disabled children: either you're totally segregated (which for deaf kids may mean not only being in a deaf school but also learning sign language) or you're supposed to be totally integrated and taught to "act normal" (for a deaf kid that may mean speaking/lipreading without sign language and maybe even taught to "pass" for hearing, or even taught that they're not actually "deaf" they just have a little trouble hearing).

But the real answer is somewhere in between. YES, people with disabilities ought to have the right to do all the same activities everyone else does in the same "spaces" (same schools, same movie theaters, same type of jobs in the same office buildings yada yada). Because why should we be cut off from options in life?

BUT -- if you tell us that we shouldn't spend ANY time around other disabled people AT ALL -- THAT is ALSO cutting off a very important range of options for us. For one thing, it cuts us off from the right to FEEL NORMAL. (No. Feeling normal does NOT mean merely FAKING being non-disabled so well that you fool everyone including yourself. Feeling normal means being with other people who are like you.) And, yes, when you say that disabled people shouldn't hang around each other too much, it even cuts us off from an important range of educational and vocational options. For example, a deaf child who does not grow up with sign language may find it harder to become truly fluent in ASL if they try to learn it as an adult. And if they are only "sort of fluent" (passably able to communicate but not really fluid) then that may cut them off from working in certain environments and occupations that require true fluency. Sure, they should be ABLE to work in an all hearing, non-singing environment if they want to. I certainly do (and YES, I grew up with sign language -- growing up with sign language doesn't close off options!) And I'm glad to have that option available. But because I grew up with signed English and not American Sign Language, I don't have the true fluency of a native ASL signer. And that does close me off from certain career options that I might otherwise have wanted to pursue. And, yes, I miss not having those options. Sure, there are more job opportunities overall in the so-called "hearing world." But I ought to have the right to the FULL range of job opportunities -- BOTH those in the "hearing world" AND ALSO those in the "Deaf world." Ditto for any other disabled person. If we work in a non-disabled environment then it should be because that's where we WANT to work (not because it's a non-disabled environment per se but because my work place happens to work in a field that interests me). And NOT because we were denied any other opportunities BUT to learn how to work in wholly non-disabled environments.

Sorry for the long comment here. I guess this whole issue just hits a nerve for me.