Sometimes with individuals who do not speak regularly, we pigeonhole them or decide what their specific interests are. Because their verbal communication is “limited,” it seems, we decide that their interests are as well. When we open ourselves up to seeing people with disabilities as people, no more or less than we are, we can learn a lot.
When I first started working with a young man named James, I was told “He likes Taco Bell and pancakes with peanut butter.” Can you imagine being introduced to someone and being defined by the two food items that you like?” “This is Vincent, he likes fajitas and chili.” Somehow that just doesn’t encapsulate my full personality.
The first few times I worked with him we made pancakes and peanut butter and had Taco Bell. After a little while, however, I started saying, “Let’s try something new today!” I figured he would probably decline and say he wanted Taco Bell instead. To my surprise, he nodded and smiled. After a month, we had tried Japanese, Indian food, Mexican, Italian, and Thai foods. James seemed to enjoy all of them but he especially liked going to the Japanese hibachi grill restaurant where he could eat sushi with chopsticks and watch them cook the food in front of him. I’ll always remember the first time the cook made the grill flame up, James grabbed his napkin and started trying to put the fire out. He figured out it was all part of the show, however, and had a great time.
In addition to our tour of cuisines from all over the world, I also explored some of James’ other interests. I continued to be surprised and was excited when I learned he shared my love of Star Wars and Batman. I remember taking him to the movies to see “Batman Begins” and two of the last three Star Wars movies – yes, they were bad but we still had a lot of fun. While driving him around, I learned James loved electronic dance music, and the louder the beat the better. He would dance in his car seat to the beat and reach out to turn the volume up on the really good songs. James was also a bit of a “ladies’ man.” He had a couple of love interests at the workshop where he worked and I would also see him flirting with one of his housemates. He would tease her in a playful way: on one occasion he went up to her, put his hand through her hair and whispered, “Wash your hair!” and started giggling. He would also hide her lunchbox and tease her while she frantically searched for it. She really liked him too and they each expressed that affection for each other in their own way.
About ten years ago, James became very ill. Over the course of a few months, his health failed rapidly and he passed away. I was asked to be a pall bearer at his funeral and did so. At the service, a slide show was played showing him as a baby all the way to adulthood. He had lived a full life, filled with amazing experiences and lots of love. I feel very privileged to have been a part of his life and to think that I may have made it a little bit better. That is, after all, why we do the work that we do. I still think of James whenever I’m listening to electronic dance music in my car or boring someone with Star Wars trivia. I miss my friend and wish he knew how much of a positive impact he made in my life.