"It's going to be OK you know," Joe said.
He'd come into the office where I'd been screaming at the computer. The damned internet was unstable and I couldn't send an email that really needed sending, I couldn't write my blog, I couldn't do the stuff that distracts me when I'm stressed about presenting. So, I screamed, loudly, at the computer until it was time to shower, dress and leave.
We were headed up to the 'Both Sides Now' conference that Vita was hosting for self advocates and their staff. I had always wanted to be involved in hosting a conference like this one and had invested a lot of time and energy into helping with the planning and advertising. We had 180 people attending, some were flying in ... I wanted the day to go well. And there I was about 90 minutes before giving the keynote screaming at a machine. The day could only get better.
And it did.
I arrived to well organized chaos. There was a line up at the registration desk and people were milling around and chatting. I saw a number of people I knew and greeted some. I took my place on the stage and watched as slowly the hall filled with all sorts of people. I had my 'integrated' keynote all ready and when it was time to begin I hit the ground running. A pretty impressive feat for someone in a wheelchair. But it went as well as it could and we had lots of audience involvement, lots of applause, and I felt waves of support from the audience itself. Then, it was over - at least my part.
The sessions were all done by Vita staff who teach Anger Management, Self Esteem, Relationship Training and Abuse Prevention. They did sessions for self advocates and sessions for care providers. Every body got the same things. The idea was to teach people with disability skills and to teach staff how to foster and welcome those skills. There was a general feeling of good will throughout the building.
Impressions and Memories:
A care providing staff told me during a break that the two people with disabilities who had come with her were very nervous in going off to a morning session on their own. They were used to always being accompanied by staff. The afternoon session was very different, the had discovered that they could do something on their own and went off without reluctance. The staff had witnessed growth, in one day, with her own eyes.
Katie, one of the instructors, had looked at me through eyes of anxiety on the Friday before as we met as a team and discussed the flow of the day. She made jokes about letting other teams take up most of the presenting time. Then, there, at the conference she was talking proudly about how well the sessions went. I saw growth, right there in front of me.
At lunch I saw a man and a woman look across the table at each other with such love. Neither had language to express themselves. He reached out across the table, two fingers traveling through space towards her. She reached out her hand and slowly they made their way towards each other. When his fingers touched her hand he began to cry. They touched for as long as they could hold their hands up. It was one of the most profoundly loving moments I have ever seen.
Then, it was time for the afternoon keynote address. We had booked Justin Hines to bring his band and play his music and chat between songs. Justin is a guy with a physical disability, true, but more importantly he is a guy with an astonishing voice who writes amazing songs, with acutal lyrics. He sings like he was born to. After being introduced he whipped onto the stage in his power wheelchair and the music began. Slowly people took to the dance floor and there were those who danced in couples, there were those who danced alone. One man who had an awkward gait held on to the back of his wheelchair and, as if it were a partner, danced. Everynow and then he's stop and look at Justin, smile hugely, and then he'd dance again.
When the concert/talk was over Justin pulled his wheelchair up next to mine and began to sign copies of his new CD that had been released that day. A long line up formed and Justin took time with each and every person. He chatted with them, personalized each autograph, had his picture take with at least 20 self advocates. This guy is a fast rising star and yet he didn't leave until every single person, self advocate or care provider, who wanted a bit of his time got a bit of his time.
I saw the looks on the faces of the self advocates as they stood in line for an autograph. They looked Justin over, he too was disabled, he too knew what it was like to be seen as different, yet here he was both successful and kind. Learning takes many forms. Many forms.
On the ride home Joe said, "I had a terrific day, just a terrific day."
And you know, so did I.