I could see she was annoyed as soon as we came in the door. The elevator was not working and she was simply standing there leaning up against a window, bitching. In front of her was an elderly woman in a manual wheelchair. Seems the young woman leaning against the window, bitching, was her assistant. Seems the young woman, bitching, didn't want to go to the Bay, didn't want to go out into the cold, didn't want to go shopping and here they were stuck because the elevator was broken down. The young, ahem, lady, bitching, was speaking loudly - letting everyone know what a burden it was to be PAID TO provide care for this elderly disabled woman. The woman sat in her chair mortified. Upset the elevator was broken down and upset that her young assistant was constantly bitching about everything. She wasn't having a good day.
The same day, an hour later ...
I couldn't get by. He, too, was in a manual wheelchair and the young woman assisting him was bent over in a position that looked uncomfortable. She was holding his wallet open. He was taking bills out, one at at time, as if they were heavy, and placing them on the counter. Done with bills, she unzipped the change pocket on the wallet and he slowly pulled out coins. The line up grew. I was simply not inconvenienced, I'm old enough to know that there truly is enough time for me to quietly let another person live in dignity. Some further back were growing restless. The woman helping him, looked up, saw the line, then said to him, loud enough for all of us to hear, 'Don't worry about the people behind you, they all understand that one day they'll need more time too.' She said it calmly but firmly. The restlessness settled down immediately.
A reflection ...
I'm often asked how we 'make community' for people with disabilities. I used to be very puzzled by this question, not knowing quite how to answer. But more recently I've been answering this question in a way that surprised even me the first time it came out of my mouth. 'We make community every time we go into the community.' Every time a care provider leaves a group home, a nursing home, a person's home, they act as models for how others should react to and with people with disabilities. I notice that people notice staff behaviour. I notice that those who are a bit thrown by someone's disability often look to the care provider for guidance and reassurance that they are doing it right.
We need to do it right.
Most agencies in Canada have, within their name, the word 'community'. This should mean something. It means that they understand that thousands upon thousands of times each day as someone is supported to access their neighbourhoods, 'community' is being taught. Each and every staff needs to understand that their role is twofold. First, and primarily, they are there to provide assistance and support. Second, and equally importantly, they are there to demonstrate what respectful interaction looks like.
Let's be honest, disability throws some people into a panic. They don't know what to say, how to say it and they are so concerned about offending that they become, and this is either odd or ironic (Shannon please help), offensive. Good staff will know how to intervene in ways that instruct without seeming instructive, support without seeming controlling. It's a tough balancing act but its important to talk about, to think about.
Those two women, while working, taught.
One taught that disability was a burden.
One taught that disability was a natural part of the human condition.
One taught exclusion and superiority.
One taught inclusion and humility.
One needed firing.
One needed hiring ... to teach ... all of us about the importance of the work. That the legacy left behind is more than a good memory of a fine time out, it's also a community that knows better ... next time round.