Saturday, May 21, 2011

She 'Said' Goodbye

"Oh, she can't talk."

"Oh, she can't do anything."

"Oh, you should just skip her."

It was an abuse prevention class for people with disabilities. Two people attending had significant disabilities. Neither had speech as a way of communicating. One a fellow, was hugely determined to communicate and had an intense desire to be involved. Whenever asked to do a role play he got up, over slightly murmured protests from others who knew him in the room. Others with disabilities, had learned to expect little from him. Even so, he headed to the front looking determined to succeed. As he came up I did the work of adapting the role play such that typical speech wasn't necessary - giving room within the room for alternate communication. His success, every time, strengthened his self esteem and the applause for him seemed to make him taller. The last time he got up, it was to the encouragement of his peers not the muttered disbelief that met his first efforts.

They say that the days of miracles are long past.

The woman who sat beside him, also was a person who didn't communicate in traditional ways. She, though, seemed to have travelled in, sinking into the safety of self rather than risking reaching out to a world that had no time to understand. A linguistic minority of one set adrift in the world of words. My goal is for full participation, my goal is that everyone give it a try. No one is ever forced to participate, which would be weird in a class about saying no, but everyone is encouraged. When I asked her to come forward the room exploded with words. 'she can't!' 'she doesn't' 'she isn't' 'she won't' ... these words, which came from others with disabilities, others who had had these words applied to themselves, others who should know that 'people can', 'people do' and 'people will' ... if just given the opportunity.

One of the assistants in the room to help me came to her and offered her assistance to get up and come to the front. I saw her move, indicating that she wanted to try, then I saw the words of disbelief and low expectations strike her back into her chair. I grabbed hold of my wheels and rolled over to her. I parked right beside her and caught her eye, I told her that she could do the role play right there, right from her seat. All she had to do was indicate 'No' in however she chose when someone came too close to her. Her eye caught mine. She looked deep into me, trying to determine if my purpose was to shame her, to set her up, or to actually encourage her. She'd been tricked before, this one. She'd trusted before, this one. She knew the world, this one. But, she gave me the gift of trust.

The role play started. Joe walked slowly towards her, she watched him approach, as he came closer and closer her right arm went up, her hand swung out, she clearly and purposely indicated 'STOP'. It was a movement with such clarity of purpose that everyone in the room knew what she meant. There was a gasp, from all those who knew her, applause rained around her. She caught my eye again, and smiled.

They say that the days of miracles are long past.

Years ago I was told, by someone mentoring me, 'The most important thing to understand is what their limitations are.' And it's taken me a long time to accept that. I agree, wholeheartedly, now with that statement. Because, for the most part their limitations are our low expectations. I get that there is disability. I get that disability means something. But it doesn't mean what many think it means. It never means that learning is impossible. It never means that participation is a futile pursuit. It never means that time given is time wasted.

I saw her get up and leave the room, she turned and smiled at me. They said she couldn't talk. Maybe that's true, but in that moment, I thought she was the most eloquent person, I'd ever met.


painting with fire said...

Dave you move me - you teach ALL of us to open our eyes and our minds!

Anonymous said...


I haven't felt a post like this one in a long time. Beautiful.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Dear Dave,

I love this post. I love what you do. I love what you did for this woman.

Thats exactly what my parents did for me. I have friends with congenital heart defects they were always sheltered. They were even sheltered from learning, from society. Some of them whither like flowers without water. They have no friends, because they dont now how to get in contact with this world.

I love how you encourage people. I love how thougthful you are.

And I love how Joe helps you with your goal.

Thank you!!!

Julia from Germany

Belinda said...

I need this kind of reminder, even though I shouldn't. Thank you for reminding me to focus always on possibility--not impossibility.

Noisyworld said...

Awesome work Dave, awesome :D

I agree that some people assume disabled people can't do anything, they forget able people can't do everything either!
I've never seen an able person walk on the ceiling apart from with technological aids, it just happens some disabled people can't walk on the floor with technological aids, BIG DEAL!
I can't speak Mandarin without the help of an interpreter ditto for people who use sign language.

I know I'm preaching to the choir here but it really annoys me lol

Kristin said...

Absolutely wonderful!

Trish said...

Thank you so much for sharing this experience with us. I love the way you reinterpret the statement about limitations - so good for all of us to remember!

Anonymous said...

Dave, the line "their limitations are our low expectations" struck me as being very true. I will re-adjust my thinking.

abby b said...


I was a daily reader for a while, and I stepped away for the past few months. Checking back in today I came across this post, and it speaks to exactly what has been on my mind today. Thank you! Now to get the rest of the world to understand.... step by step, story by story....