Working on my blog this morning I came upon a response that I hadn't noticed. It was for the "Avenging Angels" post that I wrote some days ago. My first response was, "Great, someone responded." Anyone who has a blog will tell you that it can get disheartening if no one responds to posts. My second thought was, "WOW." In essense Sonja, the writer, was saying that, she had noticed an uncomfortable distain in my writing. Though she agreed that integration was the way to go that we had to remember that people who worked in the places of the past - institutions, special schools - often provided service with honour, and care, and gentleness. She hinted that we had to be careful at looking at yesterday from the vantage point of today.
I couldn't agree more. My experiences in working in two institutions, one small, one huge, left me with many impressions. But I have differing impressions now than I did then. When I first walked into Glendale in Victoria there were few community options. Words like 'integration' and 'inclusion' had been spoken but not realized. I was taken aback, to be sure, but mostly by the difference of those with disabilities. I had not been around people with disabilities, never having been exposed to that kind of difference, they truly seemed like 'them' not 'us'.
It was with pride that I described my job to others at the time. I felt that we were offering a real quality of care. Our desire was to provide real care and there were moments of real joy. I knew that the institution was a step up from what had been done in the past to people with disabilities and that there were those who fought and fought hard for places to care when the rest of society didn't. I was proud to be part of the heritage of caring.
There are people I remember from those days who stay with me. People who were some of the kindest and most caring that I have ever met. The stereotype of institutional staff just didn't apply to them. They brought compassion through the door with them and they insisted that we all act with kindness. I remember once sitting around with staff talking about the residents of the ward. We were imagining who they would be if they didn't have a disability. Who would be a carpenter, who would be a chef, who would be a womanizer, who would be a politician. It was fun. We listed each persons qualities and discussed who we thought they would have been.
Win, the supervisor, came in and listened for just a minute. Then she gave us all a lecture. How dare we speak that way of the people in her care. They were who they were, they were who they were intended to be. The conversation we were having suggested, to Win, that they were somehow 'lesser' than they would have been if they were born normal. That was an insult to who they were. If that's how we thought of them - as failed normal people, we should think about working elsewhere. This was a place that served people as they were, not as they would have been.
She turned on her heel and walked out the door. Sure, some of the staff gave the 'what's up with her' look. But her words hit me hard. I remember them clearly as if they were spoken yesterday. She was right. Win was an exceptional person the fact that she worked in an institution did not lessen who she was - the fact that she cared makes her exceptional.
Of course I have my regrets from those days, things that I would do differently now. But I also have regrets from my early days in community service. Though the regrets are painful, I'm glad of them. They prove to me that I'm still growing, still learning. I look back at what we've done, and more personally, what I've done - and wish I knew then what I'm only learning now. But I can say, for the most part, that my intentions have never changed. That I always wanted to be kind, always wanted to be part of the solution, always wanted to be deserving of the trust given to me.
So, as I write, and as I remember the past, please understand that I see the past for what it was - a misguided attempt to do something good. I want institution doors to close because people should not be jailed for the crime of difference. People belong at home. That's pretty much the long and short of it.
Thanks so much, Sonja, for the response, thanks for thinking enough about what I wrote to disagree with me and give me the opportunity to dig deeper into the thoughts that I have. Thanks to everyone who leaves a response, it encourages me and hopefully encourages dialogue. That's what I started this blog for.