Monday, August 22, 2011

The Dignity of the Handicapped...

It was a bad day in my Mythology class. The teacher made a scene in front of everyone, pointing out that I shouldn't be in that class. He said I was too dumb and I had apparently not read the readings. I went home after class. I had some time between class and going to work. I didn't want to go to work, I was so humiliated, depressed, and angry. I tried to call in, but my charge nurse that evening wouldn't accept it. So I reluctantly got dressed and made my way to work.

When I got there, I was greeted by a sight I will never forget. We had a resident there who had the most beautiful green eyes and red hair. His body was so badly deformed, he had to use a lying-down wheelchair. His body was permanently in the fetal position. He could not move anything on his own except for a few of his face muscles. The only time we heard his voice was when he was having a seizure when he would sometimes scream. As a walked in the door that evening, he was there, lying in his wheelchair, right in front of the front doors with a ceiling light right over him like a spot-light.

Like Someone in the Great Somewhere wanted to make sure I saw him. Like Someone wanted me to know I was blessed, at least I could go to school. Like Someone wanted me to know I was needed, I had a job to do. My residents at my first job working with the severely handicapped taught me many things. Here are just a few:

1) How to appreciate the small things in life: Like laughing at a silly face or throwing around a soft ball. (Or throwing around silverware and food when some of them got particularly feisty)

2)How to accept differences: My dozen residents had differing levels of ability in many different areas. One was only moderately MR (Mentally Retarded) and blind. She could pretty much do for herself with constant instruction and supervision. Others were wheelchair-bound and non-verbal but you could tell by their facial expressions that they knew exactly what was going on. A few could not walk, but could surely throw things across the room if they wanted to. Working with them, one has to work with and recognize their strengths as well as their weaknesses. Helping them to use their strengths is really the only way that a small staff can care for so many residents.

3)There are many ways of communicating: One does not need to speak to get one's point across. The eyes can tell stories. Your facial expression and gestures can articulate pretty much everything that words can.

4)There are many ways of knowing: Even if you don't know all of the words someone is saying, you can understand exactly what they mean. My residents were very much in tune with subtleties of tone and expression. They knew when people were angry, hurt, or sick. They knew when one of my co-workers were pregnant. They might not have understood that she was going to have a baby, but they knew to be gentle and kind to her.

This is just the beginning of the list. My residents taught me many more things. They made me who I am today. It pains me when I hear statistics like 90% of babies diagnosed with Down's Syndrome prenatally are aborted. A Down's Syndrome diagnosis isn't a death sentence, it isn't even an indicator that the child will have a diminished "quality of life" (there are people who live perfectly normal lives with Down's). And even if the child has a diminished "quality of life" there is still much that the child can give the world. I know my residents gave me an abundance.

And stories like this warm my heart.

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