Sunday, August 12, 2007

Roll Model

Years and years and years ago, back when I was a mere slip of a boy, I ran a summer camp for kids with physical disabilities. I got the job because of my experience working as a classroom assistant with teens with similar disabilities at a school in Toronto. I took the job up with excitement and had lots of ideas for what we could do together that summer. I had the option of hiring the last few staff to work on site, most of the staff were summer students that were hired around the same time I was.

My first hire was Gerry.

She was a young woman with cerebral palsy that had been a student in my classroom. An impressive woman, I knew that she would do a good job and would be able to relate to the campers in ways that none of the rest of us could.

She was thrilled to get the job and the first thing that she wanted to do was have a group of those who had difficulty communicating. Gerry had a thick cerebral palsy accent that was only difficult to understand upon first meeting her. After a very little bit of time, she was clear as a bell. Gerry said that when she was at camp she felt more of a kinship with others who's speech left them behind. She wanted a group wherein everyone was equal, none was left behind. Good idea, she set about setting it up.

I never told Gerry that hiring her had caused me no end of difficulty. My boss, who was initially really pleased that I took the job, was now furious. She didn't want someone with a disability on staff. She even made a deal about the fact that Gerry would need assistance with toiletting. I pointed out that we had that support available for campers and before I could continue I was told that the assistants should have to provide that service for 'staff'. I tried to make the point that Gerry was a great role model. Imagine the campers seeing someone else with a disability on staff! It was a testiment to the fact that they could work, have a future, have a life and further - have power.

They didn't fire me. Or her. But I knew that the blush had gone off the rose and it was a harder summer for me than it need to have been. A week or so before the end of camp, I told Gerry that she'd done a good job and that I'd hired her partly to be a role model. She was mightily offended. She came to work the next day with the words 'Roll Model' on the back of her chair. We scraped about it for a while and then we both gave up, neither convincing the other. I still thought she was a role model, she still thought that she was a camp counsellor, nothing more.

Perhaps I am old school. I think it's important to have role models. I was excited to learn about Gretchen Josephson, the poet with Down Syndrome, Hikari Oe, the composer with significant intellectual disabilites, Ramond Hu, the artist with Down Syndrome, Virginia Hall the spy with a physical disability - the list is endless.

No, of course I don't think that all people with disabilities need to be inspirational, but it's wonderful that there are some who deserve to be lauded. Every minority has those it honours, why not us, why not ours?

A hero is more than a sandwich.


Penny L. Richards said...

I think the danger comes in knowing too FEW names of people whose lives might resemble yours: if it's always about "FDR and Helen Keller," well...why try? You're not likely to be the President of the US, and Helen Keller's story is also pretty specific to her time, her mind and her personality.

But if a kid can access the names and stories of dozens, scores, heck, HUNDREDS of disabled people in history and contemporary public life, the names of writers and artists and engineers and political leaders and athletes and scholars and.... whatever. All cultures, all places, all times. That's when a kid can see possibilities closer to his or her own hopes, and really choose a "role model," instead of having one assigned by default.

Ann said...


Would you have hired her if she hadn't been disabled? Did you hire her for herself regardless of her disability, or her disability regardless of herself? The former is the goal. The latter is condescending and offensive.

Stephanie said...

Amen! Nuff said!

n. said...

not sure if i agree with you or her. (A)maybe all persons are potential role models, whether we like it or not, which is kinda scary to consider. (B)being told you are a role model is all kinds of nervous-making. even professional sports people have been heard to say they resent having to be one. (C)seeing how other people with the *same* difficulties have handled life can be useful, but on the other hand, what's to say a person with CP couldn't learn useful life skills from an autistic person, or vice versa?! just for example. so maybe having some disability was more important than having the same one as the kids. not sure if this applies to the topic or not, though.

Anonymous said...

This is a sticky situation. I think you're both right, to some degree. It's true that having difficulty with something and then seeing someone with a similar difficulty doing well is very inspiring, especially at the game of life. The same with seeing those who you feel are worse off. However, I don't think she wanted to feel that her having cerebral palsy was responsible for her getting the job.

But everyone is a role model in some way.