Friday, May 23, 2008

8 feet

You can tell sometimes, can't you. Just because how someone carries themselves in the world. Or maybe is because of how the light in their eyes has been turned down. Or maybe it's because of the set of their shoulders. But you can tell. Those who have given into messages of worthlessness are legion. They can be young strapping men who look out at others and fail in comparison to what they see. They can be rich housewives who look out, like frightened dogs, at the mood of the master. They can be 8 year old girls who pick up a magazine to look at the pretty girl and suddenly begin the journey from self-dissatisfaction to self-loathing. But you can tell. Pride is not an etherical concept, it's a way of walking, a way of being, a knowledge of how to confront the world.

In New Westminster I was doing a presentation for self advocates on Abuse Prevention. They came in buzzing, loud, joyous people. I knew my job had just got easier. I have taught those who sit in every room like it was the day room on a ward - those who have given up on themselves. But this group, the energy came in with them. Well, except for her. She had Down Syndrome and she trod into the room and chose a seat at the back.

She looked up at me, appraisingly. Then she looked away. She put the Down Sydrome look on her face and sat back to endure the three hour class. I kept glancing back at her. The others were up and role playing and showing off, they were laughing and clapping for each other. All she did was blush when I asked her to come up. A shy refusal combined with a desperate wish to participate. I'd seen it before.

Then just as we were switching to the movie. One of the women said that she didn't want to miss the movie so could we take a short 'pee break'. I agreed. People poured out the room and equally quickly poured back. All were seated. But her seat at the back was empty. Someone explained that she had been at the back of the line for the bathroom.

"Would it be OK for us all to wait?" I asked. They agreed.

She came into the room and then noticed that it was quiet and others were watching her. "You haven't started?" she asked in an impossibly gentle voice.

"No, we decided we wanted to wait for you."

Everyone in the room knew, at that moment to be really quiet. In that quiet she though about what just happened. She looked over the group, not at me, "You waited ................ for me?" The words were shaky. When everyone nodded or said 'yes, of course'. She began to cry. She didn't cover her face she just looked at everyone smiling at her and let the tears fall. She made it back to her seat and I said to her, "Are you ready now?" She nodded.

We continued.

It was a tender moment. A nice moment. It meant so much to her. And it took, at most 5 minutes. This moment gave me such intense pleasure. The fact that I can make a moment like this happen, that I've been given the privelege of being able to make moments happen, is astonishing to me. I will carry her face around in my memory for a very long time.

When it's possible to choose to make a moment for another. To give someone the 'gift' of mattering' Why don't we do it. More often. For each other, for our families, for shopkeepers in 7/11 or Spar?

On her way out she stopped and waved to me. I'm not sure, but I think she was eight feel taller.


Shan said...

I loved this story. It makes me cry.

Then I get mad. Well - righteously indignant, maybe. What the hell is the matter with people, they can't treat others nicely?

RADAR said...

Thanks for another great post, Dave.

One of the nicest aspects of working in a special school (and yes, I know, special schools are controversial and in an ideal world wouldn't exist, so please people, don't shoot the messenger) was when we took pupils who had been expelled from mainstream schools due to behavioural problems. These kids' behavioural problems usually stemmed from massively low self-esteem, often linked to their learning disabilities; they had often been bullied and felt excluded from class teaching.

Rebuilding these kids' self-esteem bit-by-bit, and watching them blossom as they realised that they mattered, and had talents and abilities, was the best part of the job by a mile.

Thanks again Dave.


FridaWrites said...

How observant and sweet of you.

Anonymous said...

To radar: I, for one, don't think that specialized schools are universally or automatically bad. As a deaf person, I very much wish that I could have spent at least part (not necessarily all) of my earlier education at a school for Deaf children.

For one thing, my overall ASL skills would be stronger today (I understand ASL fine, but my expressive skills are weaker--I tend to sign in English word order)

Also, I think my socialization skills could really have benefited. I had very few friends throughout much of my education. Part of this is due to my natural shyness. But part of this is due to the communication barriers I faced in interacting with other students in the cafeteria, at recess, on the playground etc. (all times when interpreters were not present).

And part of my shyness I think is rooted in the fact that I didn't have any real practice at making "small chat" when I was growing up. I did learn a bit when my Mom sat down to rehearse these skills with me (what you say beyond "hi"). But I often still feel at a loss in group social situations even when I do have interpreters, or when everyone signs. It still feels so awkward figuring out how to politely insert myself into conversations or thinking of things to talk about or ask the other person about. I just never got enough practice for "small chat" to come even REMOTELY "naturally" to me. I know the theory, but the application is still something I have to actively think about. And if I could have spent more time in an environment that was completely accessible to me (NOT just an interpreter in the classroom, but full communication access with peers who sign) maybe it would be different now.

Deaf kids generally often benefit from a fully communication-accessible environment, and an environment in which they can explore their cultural identity as Deaf people.

I've also heard that some blind people feel they learned certain coping skills at specialized schools for blind students that just aren't taught in mainstream settings.

On one hand, I agree that MOST children (and adults) with MOST disabilities, in MOST circumstances, belong in mainstream settings, with the appropriate support services. So the trend toward so-called "inclusion" is mostly a good one. But my strong caveat is, there ARE certain important exceptions. SOME children with SOME disabilities may genuinely benefit MORE from spending a PART of their education in a classroom focused on children who share their disability in common.

Many autistic adults have their own complaints about mainstream settings. Though sometimes it can be hard to sort out, at third hand and after the fact, how much of their difficulties were inherent to the entire structure of mainstream schools (for instance, cramming many students into the same room, which can be very over-stimulating for autistic students) and how much of their difficulties might have been due to the lack of appropriate accommodations (for example, I read somewhere about an autistic girl who is reminded every morning to cover her ears right before the morning PA announcement because otherwise the piercing whistle at the start of the announcement sets her off).

While I DO agree that MOST specialized schools should just be allowed to die a quiet death, I firmly believe that we will always have a need for a FEW of them. Perhaps particularly for Deaf children, and possibly for children with certain other disabilities. For SOME children with disabilities.

We need a RANGE of educational settings and options, not all or nothing. One size does NOT fit all. The same option that works perfectly for Johnny in grade 1 may not work so well in grade 6 or at university. And the option that suits Johnny so very well may not necessarily suit Jessica who has the exact same impairment but a different mix of interests, strengths, and weaknesses.

RADAR said...

To Anonymous:

Personally, I'm with you. I don't believe in one-size-fits-all, I believe in choice in education, and having worked in a very good special school I've seen the first hand the benefits that can be derived from an environment with greater space, more specialised facilities and a high pupil-teacher ratio. That was a large part of my point.

Special Schools are a great source of controversy for many people though (in Britain anyway) and mainstream schools should, as you say, be inclusive.


PS - these comments represent my personal views, not necessarily those of RADAR.

Anonymous said...

Opps I know the original post Dave made wasn't about "special schools" but I wanted to make a comment too. I've worked with individuals who went to special schools and some others who were mainstreamed. Although I agree with the comments that others have made my observations of some of those who went to mainstream school who had disabilities is that they were often further disadvantaged by the "necessity" of having a caregiver with them, this was usually an adult and meant they were isolated from their peer group and ended up with no social contact at all except for adults, with a subsequent effect on their self esteem. I don't want to over generalise but the concept of mainstreaming needs to be thought out - it's not just about accessing education. I know with horror that some maistream educational facilities concept of facilitating the needs of deaf students is having an interpretor in the class for a couple of hours a week. That isn't accessible education.
Sorry Dave will get off my soap box now


stevethehydra said...

I have an extremely strong aversion to being waited for - in nearly any circumstance, i would rather people not wait for me, and tend to get extremely distressed if i find that someone else has been inconvenienced because they were waiting for me... so i don't quite know what to think of this...

I would respond to the special schools debate, but i think my response would take too much thought to fit into a blog comment. I'm passionately against segregation, in any form, but mainstream school really didn't work for me, and i can't imagine any form of "accommodation" that would have made it work for me.

I think i've come to the same conclusion that Amanda Baggs has, that the school system as a whole is so deeply flawed, and so unsatisfactory for non-disabled as well as disabled children, that alternatives to the entire system have to be looked for... tho what they are i don't really have much of an idea...