Gerri would sit for hours with a long pointer attached to a band around her head slowly typing on an adapted keyboard. Letter after letter after letter ... there was an aura of calm about her, the type of calm that surrounds the truly determined. Her story was inspiring but she never told it. Instead I learned it from the other teacher's aide who worked in the classroom with me. Swept away by a brother who believed there was more in his sister with cerebral palsy than anyone thought, she was brought to Toronto from Newfoundland to begin a new life. She started behind and slowly caught up. Gerri might have been the most doggedly focussed person I've ever met.
We became friends. One night when we had all gone out for a beer, Gerri was in a particularly affable mood and began telling stories and jokes. She collected jokes about 'newfies' and any joke she could ever find about cerebral palsy. Until Gerri, I didn't realize there were so many jokes about any specific disability. But she knew them all.
Her favourite ...
Two women were in Toronto going down Yonge Street when they decided to stop into a bar for a drink. The woman in the wheelchair, with cerebral palsy, pointed out a bar on the next block to her friend - a walkie. It was a 'ye ol'english' kind of bar and it just happened to be accessible. So in they went. The bartender stared at them as they approached the bar and then rushed over and began speaking, rapidfire to the walkie. He was saying how wonderful she must be to be out with someone in a wheelchair like that, he stated that the walkie must be so patient and kind and generous. The woman with cerebral palsy was very annoyed by what he was saying and spoke up, through a thick cerebral palsy accent, "Listen buddy, I can do anything you can do."
He looked at her in shock that she had spoken real words. "What a wonderful attitude," he said, "it's not true, but what a wonderful attitude." The woman with cerebral palsy looked around the bar and noticed, being that it was an English style bar, that there were people playing darts and that one dartboard was free. "Wanna game of darts?" she challenged.
"You can't play darts, look at your hands jerking around like that," he said.
"Whatsa matter, are you chicken?" she stated with her voice full of mocking.
"No, no," he said, "if you want to play darts we'll play darts." He was annoyed by her but wasn't going to be shown up by her. They went over to the dart board and she invited him to go first. He did, now being a bartender in an English style bar he knew how to play darts. He didn't want to humiliate her so he aimed for, and got, a modestly good score. When he was done he got the darts and said, "What now?"
She said, "First you've got to put the darts in my mouth."
"Put the darts in your mouth!" he said, shocked.
"Yeah, then you've got to throw the board at me."
Gerri guffawed at the punchline, as did all the rest of us in the bar. It wasn't just a joke, Gerri lived her life with that kind of defiance. Tell her she couldn't do something and she'd prove you wrong every time. Later that same evening I remembered that she had been off for a vocational assessment. She'd had to take time off from her job working as a counsellor for a camp with kids with disabilities. I had hired her to work there thinking that she'd be good at the job and that it would be good for kids with disabilities to have a counsellor with a disability. I was right on both counts.
She told me that the assessor had been very gentle when telling her that her chances of full time employment, given the level of her disability, was minimal. She looked at the professional dream-dasher and said, "Could you get my purse?" They did. "Could you pull out the long white envelope in my purse?" They did. "Could you look in the envelope?" They pulled out a pay stub for her full time job. Gerri grinned, "That made my point perfectly well."
The ingredients to the 'self esteem cocktail' that we all need to get through this life.