Sun 17 Apr 2005
The Stevens Center had members with a myriad of impairments. Some were retarded, some were schizophrenic, some were bipolar, and others had combinations of mental, emotional, and physical problems. My understanding of some of the problems these people faced going in was that retarded people were stupid and fixate on one thing, bipolar people are energetic and show initiative one day and can’t face the day the next, etc. Overall it was limited. The members at the Steven Center do not have the worse cases of their impairments, but are more substantial than people in normal society. My understanding of the disabilities has grown. No two people exhibit the same symptoms or qualities of any of the impairments. But they are still people. They are trying to deal with what they have been dealt. Some of the people with mental problems were fine until their early twenties when they had their first break. They have lived a normal life and now that’s gone. It’s very different.
The benefits of the Stevens Center for these people is immense, especially those that have gone through a break. The Center is trying to help them learn life skills and possibly giving them a chance at an independent life. It gives members a place that they can go and hang out for a while among people that are facing similar challenges. They have control over some aspects of the Center, including where they go on outings and what food they eat, and that is important for people who are dealing with things outside their control. It is a helpful and supportive environment, a safe haven.
I don’t think that I have had a profound impact on any of the members there. That it is to say, I don’t think my presence was life changing for any of them. At most, I hope I have helped them overcome some of their preconceived notions about the normals or the Dickinson kids like they have helped me. I was there to keep them company and interact with them. Different people bring different perspectives and can help break up sameness in a positive way. If I had any impact, I think that was it.
The members face a lot of problems in normal society. They are different. For some, that difference is more noticeable than others. They are labeled as freaks and wackos. One of the members was even spit on by some Dickinson kids driving by while he was walking down the street. The biggest problem is lack of hope. Some of them were normal until their break. It has to be absolutely horrible to look back on what they used to be and what they are now. Employment options are limited for the members. What they are going to do over the course of the day is a large question mark. They face prejudice, stares, comments, and even violence. The overall problem that they face in normal society is not being normal.
The whole experience reinforces some of the things we have talked about in class, especially what we learned from Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s Extraordinary Bodies. The use of the abnormal body as an anti-definition of the normal body was particularly highlighted. During all of my visits at the Stevens Center I was thinking about how easily I could have been in the exact same situation as the members there, or in even worse shape. It made me count my blessings and realize how lucky I was, because I definitely did not do this on my own. Also, Garland-Thomson’s writing on the freak show was also illustrated, although scaled down immensely, to me at the Center. I get a small sense of the members as freaks being put on display. We were not the first required service learning group to work there. I wondered, and still wonder, about the members and the long train of normal college kids coming through. It reminds me of the trailer of oddities at the Fabulon in Geek Love. People, just one after the other, coming through as a requirement for a class. Couple that with my experience of self examination, and it is the definition of a freak show that Garland-Thomson gives. The experience made me think on the topic discussed in class a little more in depth and it gave me a chance to see for myself what some of authors were describing in their books. It definitely helped me relate abstract concepts to concrete realities which make more sense to me.