Rated: E · Non-fiction · Experience · #2287571
what you see and what others see
Working with people labeled mentally retarded or developmentally delayed or whatever term was in style at the time, I came to know that whatever you called them - they were not “stupid”. Don’t get me wrong, many of the people I worked with were not as smart as so-called normal people but very few were totally incapable of some kind of reasonable thought. I’ve always thought that true stupidity was the lack of desire to learn and grow, not the inability to do these things.
Many of my clients (an acceptable term at the time) were just people that were not up to the speed at which others performed life’s functions. They needed more time and effort to be able to become productive members of society.
As a caseworker, case manager, or whatever meaningless title I labored under, I was expected to get to know my clients, understand their needs, find people and services to meet those needs (or meet them myself) and ensure that they progressed - “progress” it turns out was an interesting concept and not as straight forward as you might think. In those days, there were few services for “retarded” people living mostly on their own in the community and then there was me.
I most often arrived at the home of the person in question knowing very little and hoping for the best and liking the challenge. I learned to think on my feet and that my subconscious was smarter than I thought I was. I loved puzzles and what better puzzle is there than another human? This work provided many opportunities to work on people puzzles.
I had a list of people that I visited in their homes every week and developed my approach to their treatment. I never was sure I was doing any good, but week in and week out they knew Victor was coming.
One of the folks I saw every week was Linda. She was a very difficult client because she was what used to be called borderline. That meant that the line between her and “normal” people was a very thin one. You would think that this small difference would mean helping Linda would be easy - just a little help, thank you. But this kind of individual was the hardest to deal with for me. She looked normal, and acted normal (for the most part) but was just not quite right - like a radio not entirely turned into a channel all the way. It is the fine-tuning that separates the successful from those that are not.
In Linda’s case, she knew she was not considered normal but just by a little and had no idea how to overcome that obstacle. She had stopped trying to be like other people and just existed as she was. She had an apartment, an income (Social Security Disability - for being retarded) and a made-up job at a workshop (stuffing envelopes). She knew that this was her life and expected nothing more. But then there was Victor - her case manager - I knew she was more than that and it was his job to push her forward.
It took a while for Linda and me to get going. For a few weeks, we played “getting to know you”. Then I started to ask more personal questions (that takes time and trust). At first, there was some confusion about my motives - Linda had reasons from her past to be wary of men being interested in her life. But over time, she found out that I was not interested in her sexually but in her as a person. Then she told me a lot. I knew if I just understood, I could help (or so I thought).
The first things we worked on were the straightest forward – money management, personal appearance - Linda was scrupulously clean but had given
up on how she looked - and basic social skills - in this area she expected little from herself because others required little. Much of our weekly hours, were taken up with these subjects and Linda shined at the beginning because she was very good at adjusting to the expectations of others. I set the bar for success pretty high because I knew she could handle it and felt that anything less would have been insulting to her.
After a couple of months, she began to push back a little - we had bonded but that meant I was a teacher, not her father. Boundaries were established and I only pursued more touchy issues if she seemed to want me to do so. It took longer but, so what, we had the time and I knew that good work would take time. There was yelling - born of frustration, and laughter - that bubbled up from the delight of a lesson learned and in time respect and trust that just took consistent and caring behavior on my part.
After a few more months, Linda became somewhat disenchanted with her life the way it was and expressed a desire for more. As a successful salesman once told me - The first job of any salesman was to make the customer unhappy with what they had; you then could sell them your product. It was clear to me that while this was risky, it was a path that needed to be traveled or the client would not be motivated to make any changes. So it was with Linda. There were some hard visits with long days between them for both of us. Linda’s boat was in calm waters until I came and rocked it. During those times I had my doubts as well, who was I to push her and what was I pushing her toward? I did not share these thoughts with her - not her job to counsel me - but talked to my supervisor.
Linda did very well and discovered that she had talents that she had never thought she had and developed them. Our sessions became more about her feelings and dreams for her life. It was very heady for me - watching her grow as a person and having some small part in that growth. I watered and tended the plant but the plant did all the growing.
We worked through her getting a better job - one that she liked - through the workshop. It was a new program that would teach her pet grooming. She was placed with a pet grooming service. They taught her the job and the workshop paid her salary. It was a good deal for all involved, especially for the pet shop because Linda was made for the job - she loved animals and had a wonderful way with them. In a few months, the pet shop owners wanted to hire Linda as a regular employee not just to have her for a few hours through the workshop.
I was delighted when Linda told me but noticed that she was not smiling. I asked her what was wrong. I knew she loved the job and now it could really be hers. Then it hit me - Once she was hired full time she would not be eligible for S.S.I. Disability because she would be employed. The reason that she had SSI DA in the first place was her label of Mental Retardation was her disability. If she was removed from SSI DA the government would be declaring that she was no longer disabled and therefore no longer retarded. The government would have declared her normal. Wow!!
Linda just looked at me. She said, “Victor come over here and sit down -we need to talk.”
I was surprised by her grim appearance in the face of such good news. I sat down at Linda’s table and waited thinking she was just nervous about this big change.
I asked Linda why she wasn’t excited. She heaved a great sigh and told me that she knew that I was excited for her but that this new job was not “good” for her at this point in her life.
“But”, I said, “I know this is a big change but I know you love this new job and you don’t need SSI DA anymore. You can do it!”
“Victor,” she said, “you see me much better than I am. I think I can be the way you see me, someday. But I am not that good now. I need that SS money to get by. The job even if I get it and keep it doesn’t pay enough and I don’t have the skills to get ahead and make more money. You taught me how to handle my money. I need to go slow and be careful so I don’t end up losing what I have. I just can’t afford to be ‘normal’ right now.”
I sat for a moment feeling that I had failed Linda. After all the work we had done I thought she still was insecure and had little self-confidence. Then I realized - Linda had thought all of this through and was making a decision she felt was in her best interest. She had crossed over an invisible line and was behaving like the adult she was. Even though she was not doing what I wanted, I was proud and happy for her - I knew it was not about me.
She did not take the job but stayed in the program that allowed her to work at it. We still met weekly but the real work of her growth became more and more her property. After a while our meetings became much less frequent - she just did not have time for them. I was required to discontinue services as she no longer needed them. We both moved on.
A few years later I was in a new job but some of my old coworkers let me know how Linda was doing. It turned out that she had married and that her husband and she had opened a pet grooming shop. As well, she no longer received any services of any kind.
I smiled to myself and thought, Linda must have been able to afford to be normal.