by Raymond T. Heipp. Ph.D.
Working with individuals with differing abilities stands out as one of those occupations that is considered more of a vocation than a job. The role one plays does not matter in this consideration. There is no such thing as a hierarchy outside of any structures created so that “personnel evaluations” can be conducted and managed, along with rewarding those who have helped shape the lives of so many. Thus, the title one has; teacher, therapist, administrator, aide, nurse, parent, guardian, etc.; does not diminish the energy one puts into this role.
This role can be one of the most draining roles of any in the world. It is most draining on one’s emotions! Every day, we go out and work with individuals knowing that they bring a strong message to this world. Yet, to the rest of the world, these individuals are seen as either someone to simply be pitied or someone who is “a burden to society.” In both of those cases, the rest of the world has no clue about that individual. This external push back can also be a drain on those of us working with these individuals daily. We also become emotionally drained when our expectations for progress need to be tempered with the challenges that each individual faces. We do see regression and struggle. We work extremely hard at finding solutions or techniques that might help only to sometimes find that the individual does not react well to them. We look at them almost like our own children (even if they are adults!) and seek to protect them and give them the greatest chance to succeed. Between the struggles, the outside perceptions, the stress and emotional duress, and the demands on our lives, the question must be asked; “Why do we do this?”
The answer is simple. We do this out of hope. Hope, that characteristic which remained in Pandora’s box, forms the reason we do what we do. Hope is that voice inside of us pushing us to go one step further with that individual. Hope is that feeling we get that says we will make a difference; and we do every day! Hope presents us with the ability to look in an individual’s eyes and see what they bring to this world. Hope is a life-giving force for us, even on those days where we feel spent.
We feel the true essence of hope. Many look at hope as something akin to wishes. “I hope I win the lottery” or "I hope to find true love” are statements that detract from the depth that hope should bring to any individual. “I hope spring arrives soon” is what I am hearing as I write this at the end of an 18 day trip working with individuals in multiple states. That is a concrete example of equating hope to a wish. We know that spring will arrive at some point and it is more of a wish that we stop having snow, colder temperatures, or inconsistent weather. That is not the real meaning of hope.
Hope is learning that the beautiful young lady with severe CP and verbal apraxia is able to complete a significant amount of high school classwork independently and carry a 3.0 average. Hope is seeing the smile come from a non-verbal child because you are talking to them and then having them guide your hand as they try to communicate to you. Hope is watching the young woman with Spina Bifida and other physical issues compete in the Para-Olympics. Hope is watching a young man who was non-verbal as a child and is on the autism spectrum be accepted into the honors program at a major university. In all these cases, hope is not some wish. Hope is the driving force that keeps us focused on why we do what we do. It is the belief that the outside world is incorrect in their suppositions about individuals with differing abilities and that we can assist those individuals in overcoming their obstacles and live a vibrant life. Hope places within us the understanding that our actions do make a difference and the faith to know that we might not be there to see what difference we made, but know that we made it.
In nature, hope exists in the essence of the crocus. The crocus is a beautiful little flower that blossoms each spring. It does not wish that spring will come soon. It knows what its role is and will push through to bloom no matter what the weather might be. Those of us in the Midwest have seen (too many times, unfortunately) snows in March and April. Yet, the crocus comes out knowing that spring is coming. It is filled with the hope that says “Take Action” and it has no doubt about what it is doing. Those of us who work with those with differing abilities have that same hope. It is a hope which says “Take Action” to us and pushes us to understand that the snows and bad weather of life cannot hold us back. The other neat thing about the crocus is that it has the ability to naturalize even in grass. That means it can grow and increase its numbers even in areas where growth might not be expected. We are that crocus; naturalizing by working with each other and recruiting others to understand that “Ableism” is another of the “isms” which must be removed from our existence. We all have something amazing and beautiful to bring to this world. Thank you for what you are doing and know that you are not alone in this venture!