Danielle G

I wasn’t surprised that I became very nervous as I walked into The Steven’s Group on Thursday. Mentally disabled adults have always made me uncomfortable, which is weird because I spent many summers working with mentally disabled children. Maybe it is because whether or not a child has a disability, they always need to be taken care of or helped. However, it is hard for one to fathom an adult who may not be able to “fully function” or need help taking care of themselves (I have a similar fear of nursing homes, maybe there’s a connection). I am extremely happy I will be doing my service at The Steven’s Group because this experience will hopefully help me overcome my fear.
I expect this experience to be a very rewarding one. As stated above, hopefully I will overcome my fear of mentally disabled adults. Also, the types of disabilities the members have are extremely intriguing. Many of them are bipolar or depressed. I never thought of these problems as disabilities because I know many successful people who have either one or the other. I expect to gain a whole new outlook on these disabilities from my service. I really like this program because their goal is to make the members of the group independent. This negates the stereotype that mentally disabled people are unable to live on their own or take care of themselves. Also, as an American Studies major, I am interested in learning how American culture and society’s expectations affected their lives and even their disabilities.

I believe that I can contribute a lot to the center. My eagerness to work with the members is a contribution in itself because I am looking to help in any way possible. I do a lot with community service on campus already so I have an understanding of what my role there will be. The director of the group spoke a lot about teaching the members daily skills such as vacuuming, cooking and cleaning; I feel that I can contribute in that way. I can also contribute by listening to their stories, playing pool or watching a movie with them; just being there in a positive way will make a difference. I also hope to advertise the agency in the community service organizations on campus. It is a great resource in a neighborhood and we should be doing daily community service there.

I think my fear of mentally disabled adults is one problem my community encounters daily. Also, most people might not know much about the topic, therefore, they may believe stereotypes or form their own false beliefs. It must also be hard to be a person so afflicted by depression or bipolar in American society because these illnesses are often overlooked as disabilities or diseases. I believe this is because if it is finally “normal” to consider such things as disabilities or diseases, this country may have to start questioning what in our culture leads to these problems.

I was extremely taken aback when I first found out the members of the Steven’s Center were adults that had had mental breakdowns because of illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. I knew plenty of adults that had the same disorders, but lived normal lives. I was unaware of the extreme affects these diseases could have on an individual’s life. I was surprised that the members had these diseases because I stereotyped their appearances as having characteristics of one who was mentally retarded. One would definitely not mistake them for being autistic or having Down syndrome, but they did appear to be “slow.” I learned that this could be from their medication or an aftereffect of their mental breakdown. However, I really did not learn much about these diseases from being at the center. I was told that this was a psychological and social rehabilitation center, but I still don’t quite understand what that means. I know that the center is a social place for them to gather and readjust to American society, and some of them have been hired by the center, but the exact goals and the timeline for supposed completion are still unclear.

I think the biggest benefit of the Steven’s Center is that it provides its members with a comfortable, inclusive environment. The majority of the members have had negative experiences when dealing with “normal” individuals. The Center has given them a social space where they can be themselves. Of course, the center provides social and psychological rehabilitation. At the Center they are able to improve their social skills by building relationships with the other members, the staff and the visitors. They also provide jobs for members, which include cooks, janitors, van drivers, errand runners, etc; the works are called “member-employees.” The Center is a psychological benefit because it encourages its members to start making their own life decisions. The Center’s “Warmline” is another very important benefit. Anyone who is in need of someone to talk to, whether they are having a crisis or just want to chat, is able to call the Center on both weekdays and weekends. They also have workshops that are geared toward the varying skills of the individuals; this includes artwork, cooking, etc. Members are able to explore their skills by attending the workshops. In all, the Center’s benefits are focused on incorporating its members back into a society that has marginalized them.

To this day I am still amazed at the positive impact I had on some of the members. I did not think I had much to offer because I knew nothing about social or psychological rehabilitation, nor was I trained in this field. However, as with any other human being, people just need someone to talk to. The members told me their life stories, shared their daily events and spoke of their likes and dislikes. We found common interests in movies, music and cards. It was very beneficial for them to know that they had things in common with “normal” people. I think our visits also helped to strengthen their self esteem for future experiences with people outside the Center. Hopefully, they will feel more comfortable speaking with other members of the Carlisle community because of our visits.

The biggest problem the members face in “normative” society is the negative stereotypes associated with their illnesses. Many members of the Carlisle community think that these individuals are crazy, dangerous, violent, lazy, beyond repair, etc. What they don’t realize, is that these people once had normal lives; this could happen to anyone. The center is categorized to the outside world as a mental rehabilitation center; therefore, these stereotypes will popup in other’s minds just by looking in the yellowpages. The members are also viewed as their diseases; they are what they have. This one characteristic of their lives has come to encompass their whole state of being. It is difficult for outsiders to look at them as anything other than a disease because of this type of negative representation. Another problem is that these types of diseases do not have the same status as having cancer, muscular dystrophy, etc. Individuals with mental disabilities are often viewed as not having a disease, or it being their fault that they have it.

Foremost, this experience has helped me to connect to the work in our class by proving that disabilities studies is a very important topic that needs to be taught in higher education. Like race, gender, sexuality, etc., disabilities of all types are misrepresented in not only literature, but in American society. Working at the Center was hands on experience with Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s five strategies for dealing with the anomalous. This experience has showed me that everyone has stereotypes, including myself. All of Thomson’s strategies were present at some point during my volunteering experience which showed me that my views of individuals with disabilities could be problematic. I had viewed the members as solely their disabilities during my pre-service visit. Though know one was “eliminated” during my visits, I had heard stories about people throwing things at members, physically harming them, etc. Though the Center is a positive place for members, it still separates them from the majority of society. I had labeled the members as being dangerous before I began my experience by asking the director if she ever had any problems with violent members. And to this day, I view the Center as a positive place in Carlisle that can teach the community so much about individuals with disabilities. I am grateful for this experience because I am now aware of the affect society has on my perceptions of others.

As usual, Everett and I went to the Center on Tuesday at 1:00 p.m. Upon arriving, we sat with Sandy and Terry and discussed what we did on Easter Sunday. Sandy stayed at home and received lots of chocolate candy, while Terry went to church. Carol joined the conversation and told us that she spent the day at her sister’s home. We spoke for about 15 minutes and then Peanut entered the room. She wanted to watch a movie, so we went into the movie room to watch Fright Night. Derek was already in the room sleeping on the couch, so Everett, Peanut and I asked him if it was okay if we watched the movie. He was fine with it so we all got ready to watch the movie. Shannon also joined us. Everett and Derek weren’t too happy with Fright Night so they tried to talk Peanut into watching something else; that didn’t work too well. About an hour into the movie I left the room and went to play cards with Carol. We played five games of “Go Fish,” and she thanked me three different times for playing with her. I then went back into the movie room and watched the rest of Fright Night. Throughout the movie, I would ask Peanut questions about what was going to happen next and she always told me; we were yelled at by the boys for that. Peanut also asked our opinions about different parts of the movie. Overall, I was less interactive with the members this Tuesday than in the past.

I am really touched that the members enjoy the time I spend with them. It makes me feel really good that they remember my name and much of what we have talked about in the past even though I am only there once a week for two hours. I have grown very attached to the members and look forward to going to the center every week. I noticed that the members try hard to please the college students, which bothers me. Every time I play cards with Carol she thanks me several times; I always thank her for asking me to play. Also, whenever Peanut makes a comment that she believes upsets Everett or I (which never happens) she apologizes profusely. This may have to do with the fact that they rarely get visitors and are scared we might stop coming. Or maybe they have been so misunderstood in the past that they try hard to please others.

During my first visit to the center I constantly caught my self staring at the members. I still can’t help myself from staring at certain members, though I do it much less than before. This relates to RGT and her comparison of the stare to the male gaze; “…the disabled body is the object of the stare. If the male gaze makes the normative female a sexual spectacle, then the stare sculpts the disabled subject into a grotesque spectacle…an icon of deviance” (Thomson, 26). The stare is usually accompanied by a silent thank you to some greater being for allowing me to lead a “normal” life. The ideas of both the stare and the freak show are intertwined. Like a freak show, individuals with disabilities are on display at the center, though this is far from the center’s purpose. A “normal” person, such as myself, is given many of opportunities to stare while at the Steven’s Center. My staring is like the staring done by people who attend freak shows; we all are staring at people who differ from the norm because it intrigues us in someway. Also, my thankfulness for being normal is like the reassurance the audience gains from going freak shows; the deviant spectacles reaffirm the audience’s normality.

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