His staff, thinking she was supporting him, initially interrupted him to ‘help’ him tell his story. But what so many people without disabilities, staff, parents, siblings, don’t understand is that they can’t tell his story. They can tell their story, they can bring their point of view to a situation, but they can’t ever tell his story. He experiences his life in a unique way, therefore his story is unique. You will notice, here, that I’m not going to try to tell his story, I’m going to tell you my story, which is the story of listening, or attempting to listen to him as he tried to tell his story through the barrier of help.
Why people who work with people with intellectual disabilities get impatient with someone who takes some time to tell a story or to communicate a need is a mystery to me. They come in knowing that many people with intellectual disabilities have to work harder to communicate thoughts, ideas, wishes, hopes, dreams and stories. So, why be impatient with someone who takes a little more time – your time is bought, let it go. Anyways, she kept jumping in to help him tell the story but the story she wanted to tell featured her as the primary player in the event. Yes, she had a role, but his story isn’t her story. Her story is her story. Both stories are valid but they aren’t the same.
An example, a direct support professional and a person with an intellectual disability walk into a mall to do some shopping. They may be side by each throughout the whole trip but the experience the staff will have will be completely different than the experience that the person with the disability will have. Staff, in the role of valued, non-disabled person, helping less valued disabled person will experience a reception very different than the person they support. They may see their welcome and presume that that welcome extends to the person with a disability – and that’s often not true. They may not be able to see the various unkindnesses experienced by the people they are with because they are experiencing the ‘angel of mercy effect’ … where people see them as extraordinary for being with someone, um, like that. Different people, different experiences, different stories.
I finally asked the fellow for permission to speak to his staff. She was a little shocked at the idea that he had permission giving power, but smiled benignly, a skill we all learn within weeks of employ. I said to her, “He really needs your help to get this story out. He needs your silence. Every time you interrupt to help, he has to clarify what he was saying as different from what you are saying. It’s his story, let him tell it.”
She was annoyed, “I’m only trying to help.”
I imagine that’s true. That she was only trying to help. But she was also making two assumptions, first that she has the capacity to help him tell his story, which she doesn’t and that her take on the story trumps his take on the story, which it doesn’t. I don’t know her, I know him, and not wanting to appear rude, I care way more about his story because I know him, have a friendship with him and, at the same time, I don’t know her and may never see her again.
People with disabilities have stories to tell.
Non-disabled people have stories to tell.
Even if they are about the same place, doing the same thing, at the same time, they are different stories.
He got through his story, it was really, really, funny. She, to her credit, said, “Oh, my, gosh, I never noticed that, that IS funny.”
Sadly she would not have asked to hear his story because she had already replaced his experience with hers. She may go home thinking that she understood the time she spent with him, but she’d be making a mistake.
It’s time we started hearing the stories of people with disabilities, even if it takes some time to hear what’s being said.
If my experience was anything to go by, it’s worth the few minutes time.