Saturday, September 30, 2006

Name on the blackboard

This entry is my reflection on my first interview.

In this blog, I will NEVER reveal the identities of my interviewees. The names I use will always be fictitious. However, the issues discussed here will be real issues from real lives.

"Ashley” is an articulate, thoughtful, hardworking college student who has a learning disability. She shared her thoughts on some of her elementary school experiences.

Ashley remembers the school environment as overwhelming and chaotic. Ashley recalls being terrified to go to school and feeling tremendous relief when it was time to go home.

One of Ashley’s biggest fears in first grade was getting her name on the board. Getting your name on the board meant that you were a “bad girl”. To Ashley, her name would appear on the board at random times. Her name was on the board because she had her math book out; her name was on the board because she had her spelling book out; her name was on the board when she moved too slowly; her name was on the board when she moved too quickly. The consequences at school seemed arbitrary and scary. Ashley now realizes that she didn’t catch all the rules and their subtleties, making her feel inferior, incapable, and sad through much of elementary school.

Ashley said that high school was a better experience for her. Slowly, she started to realize that her weaknesses and challenges didn’t define her; that she was more than her disability. She started to discover her many strengths. When Ashley separated her challenges from her identity, she was able to find strategies to make school work for her. She met with teachers regularly to clarify expectations and rules; she developed the courage to ask for the accommodations that she needed, and she sought to follow her strengths, not dwelling on her weaknesses.

A few thoughts –
A child who seems to be misbehaving may just not understand the rules.

Everyone should be treated with dignity. A person’s identity is extraordinarily complex and cannot be simplified into a collection of strengths and weaknesses.

Something that teachers and parents could do for children with disabilities is to help them see that their needs do not define who they are.

The unique gifts that all children have to offer should be embraced.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Idea

The idea to interview people with disabilities took root about four years ago. At the time, I was feeling discouraged during a long recuperation from a difficult surgery. Lying around in pain gives one time to think.

I was reading some of the stories from Studs Terkel's book, Hope Dies Last. I was deeply moved by the candid stories that people, both ordinary and famous, told about finding hope in difficult situations. Kathy Kelly, a peace activist, shared her experiences with Voices in the Wilderness; Congressman Dennis Kucinich talked about an unpopular, yet courageous decision he made while mayor of Cleveland; Quinn Brisben, a retired Chicago high school teacher, reflected on his years working in the inner city.

Intrigued with people’s personal stories, I checked out Studs Terkel’s Working, from the library. A janitor, a film critic, a baseball player, a waitress, a farmer and more discussed openly the ups and downs and individual stories of their work-lives. It was so interesting to hear these personal stories.

Each of us has stories. Life is both ordinary and extraordinary, and as unique as each person. Why would a disability change that? Society has a tendency to simplify life with a disability as either “pitiful” or “inspirational”. Neither is true.

I decided that I would love to listen to the individual stories of people with disabilities, their personal reflections and thoughts. To hear the story first-hand is what I want to do. I wrote to Mr Terkel about my idea and his response overwhelmed me. I couldn’t believe it when I received both a letter and a phone call from this wise, generous person. He enthusiastically encouraged me to go forward with my project. When I asked for advice from his years of experience, Mr. Terkel said the key to a strong interview is to be a good listener. Thank you, Mr. Terkel, I’ll try my best.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The waiting game....

I was hoping to have started interviewing, but unfortunately, I have been delayed.

I had a wonderful vacation in Yellowstone - a National Park that is very accessible to those who use wheelchairs. The geysers are great, the waterfalls are spectacular, the people are friendly, and the wildlife is plentiful.

To my shock and dismay, my Permobil wheelchair was mishandled by the airline on the way out to Jackson, Wyoming and again, on the way home. And, when checked by the repair person, it was found to be irreparably damaged.

So, here I am, housebound, waiting for my new chair.

Am I frustrated? Of course! But, what else can I do? Some say patience comes to those who wait. And, as anyone with a physical disability appreciates, I have sure done a lot of waiting in my life - so by now, I should be very patient!