We sat with a group of typical students around a table the other day, invited to participate in an intercultural communications class at an area university, to discuss the perceptions of people with disabilities.
“My boyfriend told me I was retarded and that I would never be able to get a job.” With a furrowed brow, X recounted the painful memory as she clutched the black sweater around her shoulders. “That word hurt me so bad and I will never forget it,” she added quietly as she momentarily drifted off in thought to the day she would clearly rather not remember. She quickly pulled herself back to the present. "And I can get a job, I know I can," she said.
After k-12 in special education, X lost both of her parents, her anchors on this planet. Cast into the adult world with an intellectual disability, very little support or guidance, and a whopping $740 per month SSI cash benefit, for 10 years she’s made it living in low-income apartments, sustained a few unhealthy relationships, and dealt with very basic (read barely helpful) case management. Years ago, she was hit by a car while crossing the street and left with a permanent injury that makes it difficult for her to stand for long periods of time, climb stairs, or walk quickly.
Despite her challenging circumstances, X aspires to live a good life, have a job, get married (or at least have a seriously committed relationship), and maybe experience motherhood - though she says that’s “kind of scary”. She is loyal to her friends, involved in her church, and has a cat she loves. X wants the same life we all want, and that everyone deserves.
“No job is easy, but I want one and I know I can do it, says X.” Even though she has low-income housing, the money doesn’t stretch to the end of the month and she’s tired of it. She recently had to forego a job offer because she couldn’t produce the required I-9 documents and the employer couldn’t wait for her to get them and had to hire someone else. She’s upset because she really wanted the job and now she feels she’s back to square one. She feels like her job coach should have coached her to ensure she had the right documents before she went to a job interview (and she’s right). She’ll need to wait until her check arrives next month to pay the fee for a copy of her birth certificate, and she’s not happy about it.
My dream is to get a full time job and make my own money so I don’t need these checks, but this is just taking so long.
X is 30 something, a social, sassy, funny, polite, and sincere woman I have had the pleasure of working with for the past 2 years through the work readiness and personal development program she attended. She has a knack for endearing anyone whose ear she has, and enjoys volunteering to give back to the community. Though a bit shy at first, after recently completing classes in self-advocacy and public speaking, she has developed the confidence to tell her story to an audience.
As our conversation traversed person first language, bullying, the incredibly high unemployment rate for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities - despite the fact most want to and can work, institutionalization and other forms of segregation, forced chemical sterilization of women, and other wide ranging difficult subjects, I was proud of X’s resilience and tolerance to cope with such raw and difficult material.
When class ended, X thanked everyone for listening to her story and shook each student’s hand as they left the room, just as she learned to do in her professional development classes. Without doubt she’s a presenting force to be reckoned with.
“This stuff is hard for me to talk about, but I know it’s important so I just tell myself it’s the right thing to do and I do it,” X said over lunch afterwards.
X is a role model for persistence, self-improvement, having a can do attitude, and not allowing adversity to crush her soul.
We should all aspire to be more like X.