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When Progress Isn't the Option

When Progress Isn't the Option

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Published by Brittian Bullock
What are the lessons the disabled population begins to teach us--the temporarily able bodied? There are undoubtedly many. One of them is that the cultural myth of progress isn't always the option and isn't neccesarily the best.
What are the lessons the disabled population begins to teach us--the temporarily able bodied? There are undoubtedly many. One of them is that the cultural myth of progress isn't always the option and isn't neccesarily the best.

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Published by: Brittian Bullock on Jan 06, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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As I signed my exit papers effectively ending my tenure with themajor mental health agency that I worked for, I glanced up to see myclinical supervisor peering over my shoulder. Her glance bore a littleannoyance. In truth, I was leaving abruptly and with littleprovocation. The stress that is always present when highexpectations meet with sudden shifts in outcomes was very real. Sheasked me, courteously, where I was going. I paused and said,“Actually, a bit of a change for me…I’ll be working with adults livingwith severe developmental disabilities.”I can hardly forget her response.“Oo…” with the appropriately disgusted look that accompanies thatsound.The supervisor had her masters in social work. She served, as I had, adeeply underserviced population. Many of the adolescents weworked with were categorized as high risk sex offenders, by the timethey were ten. They were often filthy. The homes we went into werethe definition of uninhabitable. Our clients had not been clean, beautiful, or glistening specimens of humanity. But, to thisincredibly committed advocate, they were ten rungs above severelydisabled adults. I have come to realize she is not alone. Every pagehas its margins—removed from the center. And every margin has itsvery edge. There are many who this society cares for, challenges thepowers that be on behalf of, and takes a stand for valuablerights. But mostly the same politics that played out in high schoolcontinue to dominate the discourse. The kids who really weren’t coolto be with then—the autistic, the one cerebral palsy, the cognitivelyimpaired—still aren’t cool to be with. They still receive an “oo…”from society.There is a hierarchy of marginalized today. The ones who receive agood bit of attention, who you hear championed often, are quitefrankly easiest to love. And in truth, adults living with profounddisability are not easy, not convenient, not necessarily terribly
rewarding. It makes sense why progressive circles often forget tomention, let alone include, this population.Yesterday I was eating burgers with Mike. Mike is a fifty five yearold gentleman who is profoundly cognitively impaired. He recentlylost his long term job with a reputable employer of disabledpersons. His days, now, are spent at home, arguing with his sisterwho is also challenged. Their mother, now well into her eighties,recently the victim of a massive stroke, acts as theirreferee. Occasionally he meets up with a friend, or cousin. But todaywe are having lunch.I can only understand one out of every ten or so words. It is difficultto hear what he says; he speaks with an impossibly thick tongue. His jokes, the ones I can make out, are inappropriate. He teasesme. Teases me as others have teased him. Mike wears a dirty shirt,with stains and holes at the pits. And as we sit in the burger joint Iwatch as ketchup drips across his face. I quickly hand him a napkin,and glance around to make sure he will not be readily observed. Fornow we are safe. No one sees. In a few minutes I will take Mikehome, his outing will be over. Truth be told, I will be relieved. It isdifficult to simply be with this person. He is not inspiring. He is notthe winner of special Olympic trophies. He is not altogether friendlyor caring. He bears no great witness to Love that is beyondhim. And he is not young any more—the positive lenses of Hopethat we are often able to view tragedy through are growing cloudierfor Mike. His options are running out. This is a story that will notend motivationally.This is exactly why the mental health supervisor, so accustomed toworking with teens in trauma, couldn’t find the charity to considerthis population. There is very little personal reward here. As asociety, we value growth, optimism, change, perseverance,transformation, evolution. But for Mike, and millions like him, theseare not truths. These are not the paths forward. So what of them? What of the persons who remind us that not all can be made
 better, can be made whole, can be transformed into somethingshimmering? How do we relate? Culturally? Communally? And forspiritually minded individuals—what place do they have within faithcommunities?Tragically, as I have already stated, there is very little room given tothe truly “least of these.” While there are monumental effortstowards inclusivism—it seems somehow shallow to me. An attemptto make “them” like “us.” Teach the blessedness of self determination(aka rank individualism), promote employment (aka. Work as self-worth), provide resources (aka consumerism andconsumption). These are the transmission of values to persons withdisabilities. This is what we assign to them. Let us teach them. Andof course we colonize in order to connect.But what can Mike teach me?Profoundly, I am beginning to realize that Mike is a vision—a visionof myself. Sometimes my worst fears of being helpless or at thedisposal of others. Of being voiceless—disconnected from my ownability to articulate what is best or right or true. Of being worthless—in its most literal sense, “without worth” to people, without value, anobject to be discarded.But in that moment, I begin to understand that this is not simply myworst fears mirrored—it is my reality. In truth, I am often helpless. Irarely have the voice I think I do. And all the things I often connectworth to are routinely proven to be false; my talents, my ideas andideals, my things.Finally, sitting here with Mike, with my friend, I find myself in adifferent kind of relationship. One that holds little personal gain—there’s not that much in it for me. I am here for someone elseentirely. This relationship is a gift. That is when I see how much likeMike I actually am. Perhaps not to others. But a deep spiritual level,I encounter God—the originating power of the universe, the source of Love—as here, simply for me…I do not offer God much. There is

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