Sat 16 Apr 2005
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.