Tue 19 Apr 2005
I think my experiences at the Steven’s Group helped me to see mental disability in its most latent forms. When I first arrived at the center, I expected the most extreme cases of mental illness. Stephanie (the director of the Steven’s Group) informed us that most of the members of the center suffered from either depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and in some cases, multiple personality disorder. I had only ever come in contact with people who were extremely debilitated by these illnesses; so it was different for me to work with individuals who were able to cope effectively with their diseases. It’s hard to say that I was ‘exposed’ to the various impairments Stephanie told us about, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. The members of the Steven’s center are so lucky because they have found a place where they can not only learn how to cope with their illness, but also deal with the day to day struggles that define life. They are being taught to hope and take pride in what they accomplish. When you look at these people, you notice disability, but it is not what defines them. Instead you see individuals who are learning to take confidence in all they can do.
I think the biggest benefit of the Steven’s Center is that it provides a welcoming environment for individuals suffering with mental disability to go and feel safe. There is a sense of community among the members, and it helps that people can come to the Steven’s Group and realize that they do not have to deal with their issues alone. In many cases, the members’ problems extend far beyond their own disability, and the Steven’s Group acts as a place where these people can go and let their guard down. Even if it is only for a few hours each day, the set schedule at the Steven’s center gives its members a consistency that does wonders in helping them to learn how to live with their disability. The director has a lot of hope for these people, and she and other working at the center are teaching the members to have a great hope in themselves. The focus is on what they can accomplish, and the hurdles seem to be less difficult to overcome when they have others there to help them along.
I don’t know how much I was able to impact the members of the Steven’s Center for the short amount of time I was there. Stephanie kept reassuring us that just our coming did wonders to change the misconceptions that the members had towards Dickinson students, which was good to hear. Just having someone to talk and listen to can make a world of difference, and I did my best to take time to do that each week I went to the center. We tried to do activities to break up the monotony of the day, and even though they might have seemed like total failures to us, you could tell the people really enjoyed them. For instance, the last week Marissa and I decided to do an Easter Egg Hunt for the members. It didn’t seem to matter that Easter was still weeks away or that it wasn’t too challenging or even that we forgot to put candy in some of the eggs. They were so excited about it! I guess it just goes to show how the little things go far in making someone’s day a little brighter.
I think the biggest problem the Steven’s Center members face in ‘normative’ society is being accepted. Their disability is almost a blessing and a curse; they are blessed to have milder forms of their illness, but it almost makes it harder for them because society is not as patient with people who are not so obviously disabled. You hear about those cases where individuals fake disability to reap the benefits, and I think it makes people skeptical of those who have disabilities that aren’t as noticeable. Outside the walls of the Steven’s Center, society is not so hopeful for mentally disabled individuals. The media portrays the mentally disabled as nutcases who are liable to ‘snap’ and become violent, which only makes the majority of society fear this misunderstood group. Hopefully the presence of the Steven’s Group can help to combat the common misconceptions of mental illness, and work towards community and acceptance of their differences.
This experience has helped me to better understand what we have been learning about in class. Although my experiences with the individuals at the Steven’s Center do not necessarily match the most extreme cases of disability we have been reading about, I feel like I have a better understanding of how the disabled minority functions in a society that is harshly un-accepting. I was surprised to see how closely my own experiences reflected Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s strategies for coping with the disabled. It was hard to admit that I was no different than the majority of society when it came to judging what I did not understand. At least this experience helped me to change my perceptions, which is the most important thing .I went from categorizing someone by their disability to seeing it as only one aspect of who they are as a person.