When I was twelve years old, my parents became friendly with another family from our church. They had a son my age and a daughter that was my older sister’s age. We had visited them at their house and they visited us at our house. I remember my parents and my sisters having a good time. I didn’t have much in common with Chuck even though we were the same age. I was very active and loved riding my bike all over West Deptford, Westville and Woodbury. I also loved playing sports and exploring the woods, lakes and the river near my house.
Chuck liked to read, watch television and he knew everything about the Philadelphia Phillies. When he came to our house, or we went to his house, we mostly sat in the house or found a place to sit outside. We never had a catch or did anything that involved riding bikes or exploring. If the Phillies were playing, we did watch the game and Chuck knew so much more about the players and their statistics than I ever did. I did learn a lot about the Phillies and their players from Chuck, but what I wanted to do were all of the things that Chuck could never do. Chuck was in a wheel chair and wasn’t very healthy.
For a long time, I didn’t really think about Chuck and I didn’t come into contact with very many kids that were in a wheel chair or with other kids with disabilities. They were probably there, but I was self absorbed and didn’t pay attention. However, I started to pay attention during the spring semester. In some ways I was forced to pay attention because of my professor that taught the Abnormal Psychology class. I could have just attended class and do well on the tests, but he asked if anyone in the class wanted to go on some field trips to get an inside view of what Abnormal Psychology entailed from a therapist’s lens. It was extra credit and I decided to sign up.
The first trip was to a prison. This professor also worked with prisoners at this prison and he received permission for a small group of us to tour the prison and talk to the administration, the guards and some of the prisoners. The main thing I learned was that the medical model of therapy didn’t work very well with this group because they didn’t see themselves as sick and often interpreted kindness with weakness. Weakness was something that could be used to manipulate the therapy.
The second trip was to a facility for patients that were institutionalized by the courts or their families because of behaviors that made them a harm to themselves or others. I really don’t know what I learned from that experience because I was overwhelmed by the experience. I tried to understand this from the lectures and readings required for my Abnormal Psychology class, but mostly I realized I wouldn’t want to work in that facility. It was very depressing.
I did graduate from college with a Psychology major and a Special Education minor and participated in many experiences where I came into contact with a wide range of disabilities. I also was required to read case files, participate in role playing and present my findings and feelings to professors and classmates. During this process, I started to think of my time with Chuck and what a terrible friend I was to him. The easy answer is that I was young, but the real answer was that I didn’t take the time to see him and really get to know him. With that said, I haven’t forgot my time with Chuck and what a really caring person he was.
He would constantly tell me that it was okay if I wanted to play with my other friends and I didn’t have to come to his house if I didn’t want to. My parents had other ideas and I did spend time with Chuck. He didn’t live a long life and I still think of him and wonder what I could have learned from him if I could have been a better friend. I couldn’t change that, but I could try to really see others that have a “disability” and see them and not just their “disability”. I have been an advocate since college to help others see their abilities and have Chuck and my professors to thank for that. I think it is wonderful that I had so many mentors that helped me develop this interest and encouraged me to pursue this goal.
My family also had a big part in developing my interest in being an advocate. I saw my parents take care of a lot of people as I grew up. There were always people that were at our house and invited to eat with us. There were often people that stayed at our house because of their own economic or family problems, There were numerous situations that involved my parents giving food, clothing, furniture and money to people that were having a hard time. There were also times that I saw both of my parents intervene in situations were not being treated fairly. They were not shy about letting someone know that they needed to stop treating someone in a rude or unfair manner.
As time passed from childhood to college to adulthood, I realized that there are many reasons that make it difficult for people with physical, social, economic or intellectual limitations to advocate for themselves. I also noticed that our society and our politics don’t do an effective job in helping these individuals and that many people avoid seeing these people. At some point, all of us need to decide who are our neighbors and what is our responsibility as their neighbor.
People can choose to live in gated communities, limit their contacts to exclusive clubs and locations and avoid contact with anyone that makes them feel uncomfortable. People can tell themselves that there are agencies and organizations that take care of those people, but the reality is that there are very limited resources available to make an impact. As an advocate, I need to make a decision about what I can do to make a difference and encourage others to do the same.
I encourage everyone to see the people around them and try to understand that there is something that you can do to help others. What a person can do and what they decide to do is a personal decision, but at least make an attempt to look beyond your world and consider what you can do where you are with what time and financial resources that are at your disposal.