Because the Meadows is a vocational setting, our focus is on training people with developmental disabilities to provide them with the job skills they need to be successful. However, because of the complex needs of the individuals we work with, it is impossible not to connect with them on a much deeper level. And it is that rich interaction that allows us to see life from their perspective and to understand that perhaps the way they see the world is a beautiful lesson in being human.
As an employer we must instruct and educate, but we must also be willing to learn from those who work for us. That creates an atmosphere of equality where everyone is free to contribute and share. While we teach individuals with intellectual challenges how to develop their skills and abilities, they teach us about understanding and acceptance. They provide powerful examples of perseverance, dedication and commitment.
Because they have experienced so many things in life that others have been spared, their point of view is different. Many have endured great physical pain. Some have had multiple surgeries, physical therapy and other forms of treatment. It is moving to see how courageous people with developmental disabilities are, even though they themselves think nothing of it. Their ability to press on through physical and intellectual issues is incredible. But even more impressive is their intense desire to live the fullest life possible no matter how significant their challenges are.
But what some consider to be their disability often leads to a more positive way of seeing the world. They are able to strip away the cynicism, the hate and the prejudice that afflicts so much of society. Their openness and willingness to trust remains intact despite how they have been treated during their lives. They are blessed with the capacity to forgive and move forward.
These qualities allow them to see the true values in life. They have the ability to focus on what really matters. They naturally say what they mean without playing games or having a hidden agenda. They are straight forward and sincere.
We can learn from individuals with developmental disabilities by following their example in regard to how they choose to live, in their approach to life and how they deal with problems. They are not preoccupied with the superficial. And because they do not try to manipulate every situation to their advantage, or attempt to lift themselves up at the expense of others, people with intellectual challenges can see situations and relationships with more clarity, without all the baggage that goes along with thinking only of yourself. It makes them more real and more honest as people.
Consider the following examples that illustrate how these positive qualities benefit others.
* When someone who has had a stroke, and only has the use of one hand, perseveres for several minutes to tie the shoe laces of an individual with cerebral palsy whose motor issues do not always allow them to complete that task, it is evidence of the kindness that can be shared when one person is willing to help another.
* When an individual who is nonverbal conveys their affection for a friend who is deaf with a hug, they are expressing the purest form of communication.
* When four people with intellectual challenges play a game, but instead of trying to win they help each other so they can all keep playing, it shows that caring is more important than competition.
* When a person with limited vision holds the door open for someone who uses a walker they are displaying sincere consideration for another human being.
* When a person with a developmental disability, who reads at a second grade level, valiantly attempts to read to a person who does not understand printed words at all, they are providing a lesson in sharing yourself to the best of your ability.
* When someone with a traumatic brain injury happily dances with a friend who happens to use a wheelchair, they both experience the joy that occurs when people treat others as equals.
* When someone with Down syndrome listens attentively to a person with a speech disorder they are showing the respect that every person deserves.
* When someone with fragile X syndrome befriends an individual with epilepsy who has multiple seizures each day, they are showing complete acceptance of a person without regard to a diagnosis.
* When a person who has lost their eyesight as the result of a brain tumor, forms a bond with someone who has autism and does not make eye contact, the resulting relationship is based on each individual’s willingness to connect with the other person without judging them.
Because men and women with developmental disabilities consistently demonstrate that every person’s life has the same value, it is our loss if we refuse to learn from the lessons they share with us. But if we will take their kindness and compassion to heart, and treat everyone with dignity and respect, we will not only improve their lives but it will also make us better people.
Individuals with intellectual challenges show us why we should accept each person for who they are, instead of trying to change them into who we think they should be. They help us appreciate the beauty and power of diversity that leads to the equal treatment of all members of society. They know that winning the race is not what counts. What is truly important is slowing down and helping those who are struggling to keep up.
They realize that life is not about material success. It’s not about power, privilege or position. Individuals with developmental disabilities rarely have those things. Their experiences have taught them that it’s people, not possessions that matter.
They teach us to never give up, no matter how daunting the obstacles. They display great courage in attempting new challenges, and they show us that failing at a particular task does not make a person a failure.
But the most important thing they help us understand is that we can all learn from each other. We should never deceive ourselves into believing that a person does not have wisdom to share just because they have a developmental disability. Although people with intellectual challenges might have difficulty expressing their incredible view of life, it is far more powerful that they live it.
There are some days at the Meadows that are so remarkable, I can’t help but wonder who is really teaching who.