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Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Best Medicine.

In my line of work, nothing can compare to the invaluable gift of laughter and the ability to guffaw at all the slings, arrows, and general shit life may throw at us.

When I started doing volunteer work with individuals with disabilities, I decided to get my start while I was on summer vacation in Britain. I was 14 and decided I'd best ease into it by beginning in a country that had better facilities than I was likely to see back home in the Middle East. I spent two or three days a week helping young adults with disabilities spend their day at the youth center designed for socialization for the handicapped. I mainly spent my time with two fantastic young woman, both of whom made use of wheelchairs.

Shantha desperately wanted children, but admitted that her disability would make it unlikely since she'd had a number of miscarriages. She had made a pair of bootees and often kept them in her pocket. She was almost blind as her vision had deteriorated over the years, but she told me she still remembered what colors looked like, especially when she dreamed. She would often pretend she could see, out of politeness or denial, I'm not sure which, and would remark how pretty people looked or how adorable their children were. She always insisted on "seeing" photos so I learned to make sure she picked them up the right way and I commented on what I could see as though I was supplementing and explaining what she could see rather than blatantly describing them as though she was blind. She seemed to like that.

Sara's disability left her rather like Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot, but it was her right foot that she had more control over. Unlike his character though, she was unable to speak and only made guttural sounds or her own form of laughter which sounded like she was gasping for breath.

When I first met Sara, she was lying on the floor with a computer monitor laid a few feet from her face. A keyboard lay under her right foot and it was a regular keyboard, which made her skill even more impressive. Given her very limited control over her body and very spastic movements, it was an enormous feat (no pun intended) for her to type out her sentences, but she persevered and did it anyway. Her foot would waver in the air then come crashing down abruptly. If she hit the wrong key, she was deft at sweeping her foot to the backspace button and begin the process again.

She would also use her feet to sign out letters of the British Sign Language alphabet (BSL), so on my second day there I took off my shoes and tried my best to adapt my shaky, self-taught alphabet to my feet. I had always thought BSL was so impractical because so many of the signs rely on both hands, but it suited Sara just fine because it's easier to form shapes with two feet rather than just one.

She had an IQ of 140, which is apparently what mine is if I'm to believe the online IQ test I took. (Feel free to make use of your own sense of humor here and laugh at my expense). Also like me, she had a fantastically sick sense of humor. She realized just how dreadfully incapable she looked, strapped into her huge wheelchair that provided support to just about every part of her, how her noises did little to betray her intelligence, and how her spastic jerks made her look as though her inability to control her body may extend to her ability to control her mind... Which made it perfect for her to play practical jokes on people who didn't know her!

To permit her communication with us, her right leg was left free of restraint on her wheelchair when we went on outings. She made full use of that by kicking strangers in the ass and then doing her best drooling and grunting expressions she could make to get away with it. The said stranger would initially turn around in anger, see and hear her then look uncomfortable and maybe smile then move away. That girl laughed every single time. It never got old for me either!


jj's mama said...

Best medicine indeed. That was a touching and funny post.

It's amazing the things we can teach our bodies to do whether it wants to or not.

I wish kids free of disabilities could appreciate what they are capable of doing before giving up and saying "I can't."

I'm not big on clich€├ęs but I guess it's true: if there's a will, there's a way.

TeacherLady said...

I remember how frustrated I felt when I did volunteer work with kids with disabilities in the Middle East and one of them decided she would stop talking and make the grunting noises another girl made and it enfuriated me that she was taking for granted such an invaluable gift that the other girl did not have. She thought it was funny, but it broke my heart.