There’s an old tale about a traveler in a faraway land who sees a great city in the distance and asks a wise man by the roadside, what kind of people will I find there? The wise man asks him, what kind of people are there where you came from? Where I come from, the traveler replies, why they’re selfish and ignorant. I’m afraid that is the kind of people you will find here as well, the wise man tells him.
Soon, a second traveler approaches the city. He, too, asks the wise man what kind of people he will find there. When asked what kind of people are there where he came from, he answers, good and true and wise. You’ll find the people here the same, he’s told.
I think about this story when I’m tempted to criticize my co-workers at the day activity center. We are supposed to be teaching adults with developmental disabilities to be independent, but we do the opposite. We control them from the minute they step off the bus or the mini-van. We tell them to sit down and be quiet. We make it clear to them: You do not open the refrigerator door. You do not walk into the office. You do not speak in a little girl voice. You do not touch the sound system during music group. You do not talk about your brother who died.
Most people think that anyone who is a helping professional must be a saint. We hear, “I could never do what you do,” or “You must have so much patience,” all the time. We live in a world that gives out very little praise, so we take what we can get. And many of us are kind and competent and have chosen this work because our hearts are in the right place.
But the illusion that all direct care workers are nice doesn’t help people with disabilities. You know the bumper sticker They Pretend to Pay Me – So I Pretend to Work? When you pay staff very little, train them haphazardly and don’t pay attention to how they do their jobs, you end up with many programs that do not enrich and empower the people they are being paid to care for.
How many direct care staff go through the orientation, learn about dignity of risk, community integration, age appropriateness and functional activity and then quickly figure out that it is much easier to let Donnie sit on the couch and watch Alvin and the Chipmunks while you make his lunch for him? But if everyone thinks we’re the nice people who take such good care of those poor unfortunate people, why change?
Sometimes my co-workers ask me, what’s wrong with letting Donnie sit on the couch and watch Alvin and the Chipmunks, if that’s what he wants to do? They may not come out and say it, but after all, the people we work with drool and ask strangers to marry them. They are just going to get in trouble if we let them do things for themselves.
I’m tempted to say, fine. But don’t pretend we’re doing more.
But that is not what I want to say.
What I want to say is that our jobs are important. This should be clear every day to every direct care professional. The way Leo, Louise and Donnie get treated says a lot about who we are as a society. Do we value each other? Respect each other? Love each other? Do we value, respect and love ourselves? Are we comfortable with being different? Do we understand there are many ways we can go about the business of living? Do we listen to each other?
Who can deny, there needs to be a revolution of the spirit in our anxious world? Donnie needs to be marching in the street alongside everyone else. We could be there with him, gently reminding him to walk, heel to toe, showing him how to use two hands to lift the banner of freedom. That would be good and true and wise.