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Change the way you see and see how you change

by Tom Weaver Executive Director
Organizations that serve people with developmental disabilities have struggled for years (and continue to struggle) with the words we use in describing those we serve. All those dark years ago in state-operated institutions they were ‘patients.’ We’ve used terms like clients, residents, consumers as ways to describe them, words that too often lead to a “we” and “them” mindset, leading us to focus on what is different between us more than on what is alike between us. Many of us are not comfortable with this struggle over semantics – the way we use words and the words we use, for words can be used to categorize, label, separate, segregate.

How that thought hit home for me just this March and how appropriate that it hit me during National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, the time set aside for us to consider the words we use and the power they have to create change. As forms come across my desk for me to complete there is often some of those words – words like clients – how many clients do we serve? It’s not a bad word by itself, not even a negative word. Maybe it’s just that it isn’t a ‘complete’ word. It doesn’t tell anyone about who our ‘clients’ are, what they believe in, what dreams they have for themselves, who they are as just other human beings alongside us on shared journeys.

Latisha, Shali and Mary taught me something about the use of words and yes, they taught me. It was a routine day in their home on Swallowtail as Monique was preparing dinner for them. The stove was turned on and food was cooking. In a moment, as can happen to any of us at any time, Monique, our Direct Support Professional (DSP) in the home that night, was no longer tending the food on the stove. She had a seizure and collapsed on the floor, the first and only time she ever had such an experience.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Mary went to the stove and turned it off and then went to Monique’s side with Shali, one of them cradling Monique’s head in her lap, while Latisha called 911, then Program Administrator Vicky Wagers. Before Vicky could get to the home, the ambulance was already there. The three women were deeply concerned about Monique but were calm, looking out for each other.

Monique is now fine and grateful to Latisha, Mary, and Shali for their quick and calm actions. And so here’s a thought. When we’re struggling for the right word to describe these three women, what if we use this word – heroes!

Then there is Annie’s story, Annie Long, with us for as long as we have been an agency. We weren’t ready but we recently had to say good-by to Annie nonetheless. It’s been hard. She shared her spirit and her enthusiasm for life openly and, I must say, with gusto. As we came together to celebrate her life and to share our grief at her passing, I was moved as I watched her housemates console not only each other, but their staff as well. When we’re struggling to find the right word to describe Annie and her housemates, what if we use this word – family!

And there is Bill, Bill Eakman, Resident Home Association’s Bill Eakman, a witty, humorous, deeply spiritual man who has felt the call from something beyond himself to minister to others. And in his own way, he is doing just that. He is a part of his church choir. Every Sunday he joins his pastor in front of the congregation and they share a message. He recites scriptures. He has even shared his own messages on some Sundays. He’s known since he was a little boy, he will tell you, that he has a calling and that his dream is to be a minister, perhaps not realizing that he already is in the way he serves his community and the way he ministers to the spirit of all who come in contact with him. When we’re struggling to find the right word to describe Bill, what if we used this word – faith!

Change the way you see them and see how you will change.

Read the rest of our Choices Voices Newsletter here