Wednesday, March 2, 2011

More Diversity, More Discomfort

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine invited me to visit and speak with his college writing class. (No, that's not the cause of the befuddled discomfort.) I have been to my friend's class to speak several times, and each time I have enjoyed it very much. Also, in my travels with my book, I have now spoken with many groups and before many audiences and encountered questions and comments and people of many kinds. This time, however, something new occurred.
    In addition to all the other students arrayed around the room, right in front of the table where I sat down was a young woman in a motorized wheelchair.
I could see by the way she moved her upper body and her arms and face that she had some complex combination of disabilities, but she was there, and that was fine. I began my reading and talk, and my friend, the teacher, moved to the back of the room. I read a combination of fiction and nonfiction--pieces that were thematically related and showed the way one could adapt the same material to either form. As I went, I stopped several times to see whether anyone had questions. Right away, the woman in the wheelchair raised her hand.
     Fine. Except that as she spun out her question, I realized that I could not understand what she was saying, as she had . . . I don't know how to describe it . . . let's say that her voice and words were highly distorted. As she continued to speak, I felt myself becoming increasingly dismayed and almost panicked at what I would do when she finished speaking. A map of the inside of my brain would look something like this.
or this:
I did not want to embarrass her, and I did not want to embarrass myself, and I had never been in a situation like this, and I did not know what I was going to do. I thought I was listening with every nook and cranny of my listening capacity, but nothing was computing.
     She finished speaking, the room was silent, and then she turned around to look for my friend, the teacher, as if to say, "Can you tell her what I said?" or "What do we do now?" He said (very straightforward, relaxed), "I didn't catch all that." And then a woman sitting near her in the front spoke up and told me what my questioner had said. Ah. Okay. I answered.
     As the night went on, the woman in the wheelchair asked many questions, and every time, she would look to the back of the room to seek a translation/interpretation, and every time, someone in the class would speak up and tell me what she had said.
      When I told my husband this story, he said, "She's not letting anything hold her back," which I think is right and a great response. The amazing thing was that as the night went on, and she asked more questions, I came to understand more and more of what she said. Perhaps I was becoming more relaxed and thus more able to receive; perhaps she was becoming more relaxed as well and thus more able to communicate with me. By the end of the evening, when she bought one of my books for her boyfriend who she said needed "to learn more tolerance," I understood every word.
     By the way, my friend the instructor said that she's a very good writer, and when I asked her what she writes about, she said, "Crazy people." What I'd give to see some of her work.


The Mom (Amy) said...

It's funny I remember feeling this way when I worked in a classroom with little (LITTLE) children. They would speak to me and be very certain of what they were communicating --I would smile and nod, thinking, "oh, lord, what in the world?!?!?" Then they would finish and I would improvise.

After years of working with kids of all ages and now with two of my own, I have learned to LISTEN (note I am not saying I am good at it, but I am trying!)

And when I can get that little voice that screams "I do not understand" to shut up and just really listen, often I actually really do hear, I really do understand!

P.S. on an unconnected note: have you read Palmer Park --the play by Joanna McClelland Glass-- I just read it in one gulp last night. I cannot wait for more Detroit reading!

Susan Messer said...

Amy, so good to hear from you. I keep meaning to stop by your place and take one of the cool challenges (especially, what are you reading right now?).

Thanks for translating my post into that other context--of listening to and trying to understand small children. Yes, I've felt that way many times as well.

And I haven't read or seen Palmer Park, but I've heard much about it. Kept missing performances, off by a day or two, in my travels around Detroit. I did meet one of Glass's good friends, who told lots of stories about her and the play and its reception. I'd love to meet her. We clearly have a lot in common.

Jim Poznak said...

You are spot on with the moral of your tale. If we relax and drop our guard, we are better able to relate to people who at first seem so different.

Susan Messer said...

True, but with all the accumulated fears and misconceptions, it can be a challenge to relax. A (truly and potentially) vicious circle. said...

I was the first office manager for the Jewish Assoc. for Retarded Citizens in Southfield MI during the 70s. This was my first experience communicating with people who I often could not understand verbally or relate to in terms of other disabilities besides the obvious CHAIR.

I realized that the chairs scared me as much as the people using them. I also realized my fear was due to the possibly of my needing a chair during my lifetime. As I became familiar with the users, I saw beyond the chair. Real people sat in them just like the rest of us; some with a sense of humor; some continually angry at their fate (they were the hardest people to approach) and some who accepted their fate and moved on as much as possible. It took some time on my part and on theirs to establish trust.

Your situation is different in that you are meeting disabled people without pre-knowledge about their ability to function in a "normal" world and your meetings are one-time situations, which makes it more difficult to connect.

But, and this is a bit BUT, the young woman you speak of was rude. She knows she cannot be easily understood. It is up to her to have an "interpreter" so as not to make others uncomfortable because of her disability. Her disability is not the fault of the person trying to deal with it. Disability is not an acceptable reason for making others uncomfortable. That she found someone to interpret says she is aware of the problem. Kudos to you for being able to understand her at all after such short exposure.

Two dear people in my life use/used motorized chairs. One still does. The difference is I knew them before they could not walk (or lose speech ability as one did) so they were once "normal" people and getting used to the chair and garbled speech was a personal emotional issue for me.

Your husband is right about the woman not letting her disabilities hold her back, but she is wrong about making people uncomfortable. Her attitude not only stopped you from asking to see her work, but she could have benefited from your experience too.

One thing for sure: You handled the situation with grace and compassion. You are also a very special person.

Susan Messer said...

Thanks, Rasirds. You clearly have more experience in such situations than I do. It's interesting what you say about this young woman being rude. It makes me realize how hard it is to see a person as a person and respond to them as we would any other person when some larger label (in this case, disabled or disability)intervenes. said...

What if the woman was able-bodied and spoke only French, although she knew she would not be understood? "Rude" would then be an appropriate comment about her attitude.

Having worked in a number of different disabled environments, in addition to listening to any pertinent suggestions, we must differentiate between unwilling and disabled. There is a difference.

Not only did "she" make you uncomfortable, she is the kind of person who makes it harder for other disabled people who make a sincere effort to fit into a world that is not very accommodating. Having worked in this area for many years, the situation is improving, but it has a long way to go. It's hard enough to be physically disabled, but it's harder for those who have also chosen to be in a mental wheelchair just as it is for the rest of us to be helpful and kind.

Susan Messer said...

I dunno. I'm going to have to disagree with you on some of this. First, the French speaker. I wouldn't blame this person for wanting to speak, for wanting to be understood. I would not label that behavior as rude. Who knows what frustrations might lie behind the urge to speak, to be understood, to have an acknowledged presence?

I respect your experience working in this field, and it makes a great deal of sense that we'd find the same range of personalities here as we would anywhere else (from rude and pushy to mild and compliant and considerate). This is something I hadn't thought of before. But one of the things I want at this stage of my life is to understand more and judge less. I fail all the time, but it doesn't mean I can't hope. Also, this is part of the job of a writer (at least the kind of writer I want to be and the kind of writer I want to read) . . . to portray all people in their full humanity. No black hats and white hats. No one is either all rude or all charming. We all have a mix of both, I believe. And those who don't have that mix are far less interesting than those who do.

Still, I can see you have strong feelings about this, and that's a good thing. said...

I meant it is up to the French speaker to be in charge of being understood where French is not spoken. Maybe a bad analogy for which I apologize.

Definitely agree that different and disagreement make for more interesting people.

My strong feelings about this issue stem from the emotional damage I have seen when, in this case, the woman we are talking about is making it harder for others like her.

Again, thank you for allowing me to express myself. I admire you greatly!

Susan Messer said...

well, thank you, too. I honestly didn't think the woman in the class was making it harder for others. I was thinking that it was a good and expansive experience for everyone to have the exposure to her, her efforts, and struggles. Familiarity doesn't only breed contempt, I don't think. I can also breed tolerance. said...

THANK YOU again for giving me a lot to think about because of your refreshing attitude. I am learning a lot from you!

In the main, working with disabled/deaf people was a learning experience too. It's only because I'm writing about this that I use these labels. I see people. Not chairs. Not crutches. Not braces. One developmentally disabled young woman balanced her checking account, sewed and ate all the left-over food, forcing us to take her from her job.We found her another where she helped young girls in a foster home sew. One of my personal thrills was when a young man, whom I had taken notes for in several classes, spoke to me after about three years. I was shocked and honored.

I must remember the hats are gray!

Thank you again.