Marissa F

Word Count: 1,303

Working at the Steven’s group has completely opened my eyes to a whole new meaning of disability. Disability has always been referred to in a negative context, and I feel that it is represented that way due to a lack of knowledge and understanding. Many people characterize disability with a physical impairment – something that is very obvious to point out – however in volunteering with the Steven’s Group, my understanding of disability greatly expanded. I was exposed to all sorts of impairments, most of which were either schizophrenia, bipolar, or multiple personality disorder. Before working at the Steven’s group, I had this notion that all individuals with these mental disabilities were “whackos.” I felt as if they would not be able to put a sentence together or hold a conversation. However, my understanding deepened each time when I was able to have a flowing conversation. Furthermore, my preconceived misconception was that most people with these illnesses were born that way; and in many of their cases, it was the exact opposite. Many had a traumatic event occur and it caused them to mentally “snap.” Getting to know these individuals allowed my definition of disability to come unglued. There is no certain mold or structure of what a person should look or act like; and these members helped break down the cultural stigmas and barriers in my mind so that I can see all of the attributes that they encompass.

The Steven’s Group provides its members with many benefits and services. The first benefit is social rehabilitation, where they learn to build relationships and improve their social skills. The second benefit is psychological rehabilitation, where they learn to rebuild their own life based on their own decisions. Many people usually refer to a “group home” as a place where people just sit all day and do nothing, however the Steven’s center makes sure that each individual has an opportunity to express their talents and rebuild their life. Furthermore, they have a consumer run hotline service, called the “Warmline,” for positive reinforcement. A member who may need someone to listen to their problems or to help them finish their day could call this number for support. I feel as if this is a very unique gift to the organization; just knowing that someone is there to listen can easily help each individual rebuild their life one day at a time. Additionally, there are numerous employment opportunities within the Steven’s Group. Many of the members there have not had a job in 20 years, so they have opportunities for employment such as cooking, cleaning, running errands, etc. If one is employed by the Steven’s Group, then you are called a “Member-Employee.” The employment opportunities serve to slowly incorporate them back into the “normal” life they once had. Finally, many workshops are provided for purposes of recovery. These workshops focus on the individual’s skills and they allow one to explore their hidden talents. So often the members are devalued and marginalized by the normative culture that they in turn separate themselves from the rest of the world and forget they actually have talent and achievable goals.

I feel as if I had a personal impact on the members of the agency. My whole life I have been told that I “light up a room with my smile.” Sometimes, all a person needs is a smile to make them feel valuable or wanted. As overwhelming as it became at times, and even though I felt so out of place, I hope I made a personal impact on everyone of the members. In all honesty, I felt as if the members could relate to me in a different way because I had a disability too – I did not fit the criteria of an ideal person in the normative cultural. I think that was probably the final proof for them to see that I was not there just because I technically had to be. Also, I hoped that I was able to show them that even though I was not “normal,” I still have not let my disability disable me. I have continued to pursue my goals even when others had told me it was hopeless. When others devalued my humanity and thought that I could not accomplish my goals because I was “sick and different,” I had to let the motivation from deep within me arise, and I hope I was able to bring out that motivation that I know lies deep within them.

There are also many problematic issues that the members face from the outside community in general. To begin with, the Steven’s group is technically labeled as a mental rehabilitation center from the outside world because many of the members have a diagnosed mental disability. Because of this, many of these members are stereotypically labeled as crazy, violent, lazy, and that they are of little worth. To shed light on a more personal note, I said from day one of this service learning that their “disability” was going to jump out at me; in fact, some individuals I met barely gave any leeway for me to believe they were mentally disabled. I had my own assumption due to the cultural stigma of what disabled individuals are like, and I believe that most individuals in a “normative society” believe the same way, too. However, my perception of disability has changed, and I would hope that if more individuals took a chance to work in this type of environment, they too would break down their own definition of what disability is. I personally questioned what I would talk about in conversation with these individuals, what topics should I avoid (i.e family), and whether or not I should talk about my life with them. I assumed that these individuals were unable of carrying an intellectual, adult conversation, and I assumed that if I told them about my life at Dickinson, I might come off as a snub, and I certainly did not want to do that! With that said, I feel that most individuals who are not exposed to these disabilities generally want to avoid talking with them, thus proposing a huge language barrier between the disabled and normative society.

On a final note, working in an atmosphere of this kind has allowed me to think on a deeper level when discussing our class material. First off, in Garland-Thompson’s book, Extraordinary Bodies, most of the five cultural strategies were represented when I volunteered at the Steven’s Group. The first, third, fourth and fifth strategies were all present during this experience. Before I even met with the members, I defined them solely by their disability. I did not attribute them as being human beings; I attributed them as handicapped individuals. The third strategy, which indicates how these individuals will be segregated from the “normal” society, was present throughout the entire experience as well. Belonging to a group home obviously sets one apart from the greater society. Being placed in a home with similar individuals constructs an invisible barrier between the normative society and individuals with disabilities. The fourth strategy, on the other hand, states that their bodies will be perceived as dangerous, unruly, and out-of-control. Many of these members are stereotypically put into a category of being out-of-control because they simply might have a harder time adapting to a certain situation or expressing their emotions than most people. Finally, the last strategy indicates that cultures may respond to the anomalous by incorporating that which is different into everyday life. I feel as if the Steven’s Center is doing an excellent job in helping the members rebuild their life and feel normal again. Being employed allows the members to be incorporated into everyday life and slowly but surely they will regain what others stripped away from them. All in all, this has most definitely been an eye-opening experience, and it gave me the chance to eradicate all of the stigmas I subconsciously had against individuals with disabilities.

Today was my last visit at the Steven’s Group. Aimee and I went around 12:30 on Wednesday. When we first got there, I talked with one lady and introduced myself to here. Then Aimee and I went and sat on the couch. I then met Garret for the first time and we had a pretty good and flowing conversation. Carol came in behind as after her run to dairy queen and she asked Aimee and I to play a game of cards…we decided to play Uno. We went into the kitchen and Aimee, Carol, Rebecca, Derek and I all played two rounds of Uno. It was then when I met Rebecca. I got a little bit of a chance to talk with her and about her family. After cards, Aimee and I decided to do an Easter egg hunt. Peanut was the one member who wanted us to plan an Easter egg hunt; she asked us to do that the very first week we were there so we decided to put milk chocolate candies into the eggs and hide them. After getting the eggs ready, Aimee and I dispersed them throughout the kitchen, family room, TV room, and game room. After all the eggs were hidden, we told all the members to go and find them. It took about 10 minutes for them to find all the eggs, and it was quite a fun activity for everyone. Furthermore, as some were looking for the eggs, three of the members asked me what was wrong with my leg. They were very courteous, and it gave me an opportunity to tell them more about my life. Next, we collected all the eggs, and then I just went and sat with Carol for the remainder of time. Carol is my favorite member…I enjoy talking with her. After talking with her, we decided it was time to go, so we said our final goodbyes to everyone and left.

In all honesty, this was the first time I felt comfortable there because we were actually doing an activity which incorporated everyone. Peanut got a little attitude with us today; I think she was upset that she only found two eggs when the other members found 3 or 4. I kept thinking to myself that I didn’t need to be here, I was here for her, and she was very rude to Aimee and I and that got on my nerves. I was doing what she asked us to do…and for her to talk with us in such a condescending manner really got to me. Also, surprisingly, when the members asked me about my leg, I felt relieved. I cannot pinpoint why, but they did ask it in a very courteous manner, and they apologized for what I have to go through. It was nice to know that they cared enough to wonder what happened to me. Finally, it was just a fun day, and it felt good to talk with these people and be able to interact with them in a “normal” way. I don’t know if I will exactly miss them, except for Carol, she was always so thoughtful, but I did learn how to be grateful for who I am. It is really touching to see how a simple Easter egg hunt made them so happy. In today’s stressful world, we as humans get all caught up in our own business and we expect that the world owes us something…and in fact it owes us nothing. It was just nice to see how a simple gesture and a little work on my part helped make their day a whole lot better.

This final visit reminded me a lot about our discussions regarding how the anomalous interact with one another and how we, as “normal” individuals perceive these interactions. This simple Easter egg hunt gave them something to do, not only allowing them to interact with one another, but also interact with Aimee and I. I believe that humans construct a certain physicality of how these individuals will look, talk, act, and interact with each other. Even with cognitive disabilities, we construct in our minds that the disability they have will be blatantly obvious to us….almost as if it will jump out at us. This might be a long shot, but I believe this mental picture we hold in our minds leads into our class discussion about the combinatory approach with strategic constructionism and strategic essentialism. Individuals with disabilities are viewed at in two distinct ways. Each way has positive and negative aspects to how the anomalous are viewed. I believe that going in on this service learning experience, I had a strategic constructionism view towards these individuals. I constructed them in my head as a “something” more than a “someone” because I felt as if their disability was going to “jump” right out at me. I did my best to act like they were normal, and to really challenge the definition of “normal” within myself, but every time I thought about them, my mind strategically went back to how these individuals were the exact opposite of the societal ideal. The idea of appearance sets a hierarchy; we hold individual appearances to a greater value than a person’s intelligence. I feel as if looks are so important nowadays; no one says “Did you hear that Julia Roberts graduated with top honors in college.” Everyone says “Did you SEE what Julia looked like on the red carpet.” To me, I believe that some of these individuals might (have been at one point) or are still geniuses. But no one even cares about their intelligence because they might not match their clothing or their hair might be very dirty. However, as I continued to volunteer at the learning center I tried to make their difference as relative as possible. I tried not to let any political, cultural or societal assumptions sway how I felt towards these people. It was a constant battle internally with trying to make them seem normal in my head, and then feeling like they are way out of place. I don’t know exactly what strategic essentialism is, but in context with this project, I believe my viewpoint changed to a more essentialist manner. I began to value their individuality more, and not grouping them as a collective whole in a negative way, but more in a sense of community. I saw how these people interact, and who’s to say whether or not having an Easter egg hunt be fun is wrong or not. I just hope that one day everyone can see these individuals as an essential part of a community and begin to validate them as a person, not construct what they should look like based off of a societal ideal.

Side Note – I posted this on friday at around 11 at night, then when I checked to see if there were any comments it was not on the website so I am posting it again!

Next Page »