Sunday, August 08, 2010

Requiem For A Giant: Winifred Kempton

Customs was suspicious of her. I was working, many, many years ago for what is now called Community Living Toronto as an instructor in a day programme. It had been decided to offer sex education to the men of the programme. Yes, you read that right, to the MEN of the programme. A search for curricula turned up only one. Life Horizons by Winifred Kempton, it had therefore been ordered. However, Customs held on to it for a suspiciously long time. The curriculum was based on photographs turned into slides. The pictures were graphic, erections were erect, a big black arrow pointed to the clitoris. The pictures were not, however, in any way salacious. They were, though, for the time - a bit shocking.

Finally the kit arrived and I set about figuring out how to use a slide projector and practiced the script that went with the photos. I tried really hard to be mature but I was in my twenties and wildly excited about the opportunity to teach something of meaning. Amongst my other classes was the incredibly exciting 'numbers' class, replete with spongy puzzles and wooden cut outs. This, to me, was something meaningful.

I struggled through the class and the fellows bore with me. They managed to learn a bit about their bits. I managed to learn a lot about teaching. Together, we both benefited. I remember looking at the name Winifred Kempton and wondering who this woman was. This woman who created a curriculum that was clear and unashamed. This woman who had set the standard for sex education for people with disabilities at the very highest level. I never imagined that one day I would meet her.

After lecturing and writing on sexuality for some years, I was invited to a conference where many of the North American leaders in sex, sexuality and sex education for people with disabilities would be presenting. I was awestruck to be amongst their number. Winifred had continued, from that first curriculum, to write, to publish and to lead. Her path was, by then, already long. Her accomplishments, by then, enormous. We all met for dinner and Winifred was properly seated at the head of the table. I was seated at her right hand. She turned to me and spoke.

I heard her voice but not her words. All I could think was "Winifred Kempton is talking to me, this is Winifred Kempton talking and she's talking to me.' She paused and I knew that I was to say something. Finally I found my voice and said, 'I thought you were kind of like Betty Crocker, I didn't think you really existed.' She laughed and I followed up with, 'Can I touch you?' I reached out my forefinger and poked at her elbow. Luckily she was charmed not disturbed by my little outburst. I then told her about that class and about Canadian customs and about how much I admired her. It was a lovely, lovely, evening.

Over the years we met several times. We even shared the podium once and gave a talk together. She enjoyed my style and I enjoyed her substance. For a little woman, her words carried a great deal of weight. She told of her fight for the right of sexuality and sex education for a population denied the right to knowledge of their bodies, the power of their hearts and the depth of their souls. She understood exactly what sexuality was and exactly it's role in human development. Her wisdom shone even though her voice was beginning to fail her.

Once we were talking and she shared with me that her husband was beginning to have real trouble with his memory. She loved this man and her voice was full of what he meant to her. She said, 'He has trouble with his memory, mine works fine. I have trouble with my hands, his work fine. Together we make it, because together we are completely whole.' No wonder she understood love and the power of relationships. No wonder indeed.

We talked occasionally over the years but, as things happen, we hadn't spoken for a couple of years. She was busy with her life and I with mine. Life has a way of continuing as if there will always be time for one more conversation, one more meeting, one more moment together. But it's a pretence. Life does come to an end.

Winifred died on August 4th. I do not know why the sky did not fall. It should have. I do not know why church bells did not ring out across the land. They should have. I do not know why I had to find out in an email. I should have heard the news passed to me by a hundred thousand grieving lips. A woman who changed the world has died. A woman who had the courage to stand up to bias and bigotry has passed on. This world is forever different because Winifred walked upon it.

I am not overstating this woman's importance to the field of intellectual disability. She is the giant upon who's shoulders we stand. People with disabilities owe her a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.

That first day of classes with those men in that darkened room, I began work that Winifred had made possible. Those men grew comfortable in their bodies because of a little woman with courage, a little woman with a lion's heart.

That first meeting where I poked her arm, I began a relationship that would lead to wonderful and sparkling conversations sprinkled over many years. That conversation has now ended.



I cannot believe that I had the privilege to meet her. The privilege to say ...

Winifred Kempton was a friend of mine.


theknapper said...

Thanks for this requiem....I have one her books.....she was a pioneer in the field.....there were so few resources then and her book was groundbreaking.

Jan said...

I remember teaching using those slides and I was so impressed with the material and the fact that someone else believed that people with disabilities needed to know about their bodies. She was an incredible woman and I want to thank you Dave for this requiem

Lene Andersen said...

What a beautiful eulogy for an amazing woman. Thank you.

Mark Pathak said...

The Kempton slides, that takes me back about 15 years!!!

RiP Winifred.

Anonymous said...

Hi David. What a lovely, lovely requiem for Winnifred. I too had the priviledge of meeting, getting know and sharing the podium with Winifred. She taught me alot in my early days, and not just about the specific subject matter of human sexuality. She taught me about dignity. For that I will be forever grateful. David Hancox