Not An Act Of Service….By Lori Litke

I do not blog as often as I probably should, but I usually find it hard to think of something to say unless I am feeling inspired.

Well today I fell inspired.  I was talking to a friend and I had a bit of a light bulb moment for myself.  This is it…. being friends with, employing, or in general extending ourselves to individuals with disabilities is not “an act of service”.

I am quite frankly exhausted by the idea that when someone does something kind for one of my sons or when I employee a person with a disability it is some benevolent gesture.

It starts in schools when primary school children are nice to an individual with a disability and they are praised for their patience, and understanding.  It is instantly implied that it is simply not a reciprocal relationship.  We are conditioned from the time we are young to believe that helping the disabled is an act of charity.

Two years ago I had stopped by sons grade 4 class room, to discover from the other students 2 of them had been assigned to keep an “eye on him” on the playground. What is that?  Is it so impossible that they in fact might benefit in some way from actually playing with him? My sons are not, nor will ever need to be, a charity.

I have an excerpt from Judith Snows article, ‘Creating What I Know about Community from Inclusion Network’. Judith Snow has a disability. This article is available on-line and if you find the time to look it up I encourage you to do so.  It is truly one of the most insightful articles about community and disability I have ever read. She says this ….

Beyond ordinary giftedness there is extraordinary giftedness, the kind that extends opportunity for interaction and meaning to a larger number and variety of people. One person is not just nice to be with but is a truly funny comedian; another doesn’t just get around but dances on skates beautifully; another not only shows up for the PTA regularly but has ideas that are engaging and changing the face of the local school board.

Each person has a variety of ordinary and extraordinary gifts. The people whom we call handicapped are people who are missing some typical ordinary gifts. However such people also have a variety of other ordinary and extraordinary gifts capable of stimulating interaction and meaning with others.

Seeing disability somehow prevents us from seeing the gifts in a person, at least at first. And so we are surprised when we find ourselves experiencing pleasure, meaning, and opportunity in the presence of a disabled person.

Furthermore giftedness grows from different roots making it possible to speak of three different sorts of gifts. First, some gifts seem to arise simply because of the unique makeup of the individual. One person picks up whistling at age 5, another has always enjoyed listening to other’s stories. Secondly, some gifts are tied to a general characteristic. Only women bear babies. Lastly, many gifts arise from the efforts that an individual makes to deal with her or his experience. After a long fight with cancer a person may develop a high tolerance for pain, an appreciation for beautiful sunrises and the desire, time and capacity to visit severely ill people.

What she goes on to describe is “The gifts of being”.   By engaging in a relationship with my sons, you learn to understand the subtleties of communication without words, to be grateful for the gift of language, the value of patience, and the passion that can be enjoyed by eating a good meal.  In a world consumed with moving faster and being busier, he reminds me to go slow and enjoy the process. My 10-year-old teaches me every day about the potential available when we dismiss the realistic in favor of the unimaginable.  I would argue the youth engaged in relationships with my sons learn more about compassion, understanding, and appreciation of uniqueness because of their relationship with him. Ultimately this may create better citizens.  That is an extraordinary gift to offer the world. Yet repeatedly I am expected to feel grateful when their peers or other make time for them.

My niece is currently attending high school and will often ask to partner with individuals in her class with disabilities because she has experienced the gifts her cousins. She is frustrated when she is told she does not need to worry about them, their Educational Assistant will help them. Ugh… can you sense my growing frustration?

Is it so hard to believe that if we invite children into the lives of other children with disabilities they might actually be better for the experience?  That the relationships could be reciprocal?  What I am saying is this, when you are friends with my son you are receiving as many gifts of friendship as you are bestowing. But we are conditioned to treat these relationships as service so often that we no longer see any intrinsic value to ourselves in simply having them.

My friend worked for a company 8 years ago that had started laying off large portions of their work force. On the list was a woman with Down syndrome that cleaned occasionally. She argued for the importance of keeping her as an employee because of her value to company morale. Just the routine act of cleaning had allowed her to make so many connections with all the staff that she was a part of the company’s culture, and morale was critical to retain at a time where they were undergoing major change.

I do not want someone to employee my sons because they want to do them or I any favors. I want the world to see the contributions they can make and value those contributions.  My sons are capable of working, but if all you value is what they can produce, you might never see all the other value they offer. We don’t need pity. What we all need are communities that see and understand the value of diversity, the potential for all human beings to contribute.

Lori Litke, BA

Owner, Program Director

Bridges Consulting

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