This place matters

This place matters

Saturday, June 12, 2010


Some years ago, I worked at a home for children and teens with developmental disabilities. The young men and women who lived at our facility faced severe limitations: some had wheelchairs, some needed one-on-one help to eat. Most needed one-on-one help to dress themselves, bathe, use the restroom, do art projects, and so on. Most of the people with whom I worked knew only a couple of words or signs, if any.
One thing I always found odd is how many of the kids knew how to say certain words, but never said them when they needed to. For instance, a great many of the people knew a word or a sign that told someone they needed to use the bathroom, but a great many didn't. It's not easy making sure people are dry all the time, nor easy to keep up with the flow, so to speak, when seven kids forget how to use the word "pee" at the same time. So sometimes a young man or woman would end up in an uncomfortable puddle of wet, sticky pee for a while. So you'd think they'd learn, right?
Thing is, making words isn't as easy as it sounds. While it's perfectly easy for me to say the word "pee," (it's only one letter, after all) there are actually quite a few rather tricky steps involved. First, my brain has to tell me it's time to pee. Then my brain needs to tell me "If I pee right now, I will be wet and sticky and uncomfortable." Then it needs to tell me, "I can avoid being sticky and uncomfortable if I go to a bathroom." Then it has to tell me "If I say the correct word, someone will take me to the bathroom." Next it needs to remember that the word I have to say is "pee." Next, I have to use my throat to make a sound. Then I've got to put the sound in my mouth, then I've got to push my lips together and then pop them out, and then push the sound out. Problem was, a lot of the time, the the mental and physical effort required to complete these steps might take somebody's attention away from other things, like holding one's bladder.
There were a couple of kids, though, who were physically and mentally able to use much bigger words, but just... didn't. For some reason. There was one young man, for instance, who could speak in complete sentences, but only spoke at all once or twice a week. Like every now and then, he'd up and say "Coca Cola." So you'd run and get him and everybody else some pop to show him that "When I say words, I get the things I want or need." But then he wouldn't say Coca Cola again for a month. Once, he and I were roughhousing and he said "Get off me!" As you can imagine, when a man who hasn't spoken to you in a month says "get off me," you're going to listen. But he never said "Get off me," when a nurse was giving him a shot, or when he was fighting with one of his roommates, or when I was trying to drag him out of bed in the morning. Once, the day after a nurse accidentally jabbed him with a nail clipper, he informed me, "They cut me." If he could create a novel sentence like that, why couldn't he say "My head hurts," or "I'm hungry"?
As a side note, in my experience, if a person with a disability knows one word, it is a swear word. I'm not lying to you, I worked with a dude for seriously five years, and the first time he ever speaks in my presence, after FIVE years, he says "Aww, shit." And you could tell by the look on his face that he knew exactly what he was saying. What the hell? And this is why I'm not allowed to have kids of my own, I laughed my ass off. My rule was always that if you're just learning how to speak, I'm never going to tell you not to talk, even if you're swearing like a sailor. 

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