I get asked a lot what it is that “I do.” When I’m at the doctor’s office, the grocers, the bakery, while getting a coffee. I always respond to people that I work in the not-for-profit sector, as the job that I do is rather tricky to explain in one short conversation. This usually just gets a nod of, “hmm that’s nice.” Upon further probing I tell them that I work with people with disabilities and their families, and friends to live full inclusive lives in the community. “Wow, that must be such rewarding work,” I get. Or, “you are such a good person.”
And you know, with all their good intentions it actually drives me to distraction.
Today, I was meeting up with a young woman who lives in her own place to discuss a few things coming up. She met me outside because she actually had to head to the shops for some groceries and to pay her electricity bill at the post office.
While walking to the post office we passed a coffee shop next door, I suggested that I would wait for her inside because I wanted a coffee and I didn’t need to be there while she was sorting out her personal financial matters. When we parted ways I was heading into the shop when a man pulled me aside to tell me “how much he admired me for what I did.” “Sorry,” I responded, “for what?” He looked around to make sure she wasn’t within ear shot and said, “you know, for working with ‘these’ people... I tell you are doing good work. I know those who’ve done it and you’re a good person.”
It stopped me dead in my tracks. How. HOW do I respond in a way to this man that is polite, but also doesn’t send me into a lecture about Social Role Valorisation theory (Wolf Wolfensburger...look him up). Or into a tirade about how “these” people have a plethora of gifts, talents, and skills that they can contribute to society? How society undermines them because of their difficulties and doesn’t applaud them like everyone else in society for the things they can do quite well? How this fantastic and confident young woman I was with lives in her own home, has a loving relationship, is the director of her own life, and I was merely there getting in the way of her weekly errands!?
The fact that SHE fit me into HER schedule and not the other way around!?
I paused. I stalled. I said nothing of any significance other than the semblance of a mumbled “ok” and slumped away with my head down. Why? Because, how could I really get to the crux of this issue in a matter of moments. Would he really get it? Of course, when I walked away I thought of a million little pithy one liners that I could have used (which I have pocketed for later), but it still doesn’t get at the root of society’s issue.
Yes, I love my job. I love working with the people that I do because they are all interesting, unique, driven, and quite frankly some of the nicest people I have encountered in my life. But why is it that as soon as I mention that I work with people with disabilities the automatic response is one of admiration or applause? I work with people. Period.
When working as a barista in a coffee shop all during my post grad, I worked with people, served people, got to know people all day long. No one ever said to me, “Oh wow, you are such a good person because you make a mean latte....It must be such a sacrifice doing what you do, having to work with ‘these’ people every day.” It’s weird, but the social norm to compliment someone for working with a particular ‘type’ of person only happens when that person is viewed differently or possibly lesser in society than others that you would ‘typically’ see.
I don’t get labelled every day with my inability to barbecue or play a sport with any hand-eye coordination whatsoever. People don’t turn to my partner when we are out and say to him “Oh it is so good of you to spend time with this really clumsy person with IBS who suffers from allergies and excessive mouth breathing.” I talk too much, I have a temper, I drool when I sleep, I suffer stomach issues (think flatulent), I catch every cold known to mankind, and I am horrendously un-coordinated. Yet, I am not labelled with the things that make me different or mean that I need extra support sometimes.
When I was 15, my father with a Master’s in Business Administration had to have our family’s finances taken over by my mum with a Nursing degree because he was t.e.r.r.i.b.l.e at it. Since then, my parent’s finances have never been better. For all the things he could do remarkably well, he was not good with money, he needed help. That’s all it is.
We ALL need help. Sometimes, and some people, may need a little more than most. Yet, in the end, that’s the only difference. My partner would probably live off cans of tomato soup and toasted sandwiches if I wasn’t there to cook. How many times does he turn to me an hour before a work shift and say,”Is my work uniform washed?” I Dunno Mate, IS IT?!!?! This guy is a Neuroscientist Phd and he cannot survive on his own.