Thursday, 14 June 2012

Haunting Memories

I guess we are all haunted sometimes by things we have done in the past.  When I was a graduating high school student, I was lucky to have a summer job.  I was hired on as a life skills teacher at a sheltered workshop for people with developmental disabilities.  The place was called "Arc Industries" and the 'employees' there did two types of work: some hand-stitched baseballs while others packed and sealed boxes of sanitary napkins.  My job was to teach the employees how to read a menu and order food at a restaurant and how to set an alarm clock.

I remember feeling at first quite nervous about meeting people at Arc.  Most of the people had unusual features or behaviours and I was unused to diversity back then.  Many had lived from a young age at the Southwestern Regional Centre for people with disabilities in Blenheim, Ontario.  That centre closed in 2009, but when I worked at Arc, the year was 1972.

"Blenheim", as it was called for short.


I remember one angry young man who arrived every day with an aura of deep resentment.  One day I asked him about his past.  "My parents didn't want me so they paid a government official to have me placed in Blenheim.  Something you would never understand."  I was silenced and deeply shocked.  This young 20-something man was able-bodied... he didn't have any disability.  He had just been an unwanted baby who had the misfortune of growing up in an institution far away from anyone who could have loved him.  His acquired disability was uncontrolled anger.

Another Arc Industries employee I remember from Blenheim was a very pretty young woman who was not much older than me.  We chatted as girlfriends and it was only in my one-to-one teaching that I realized what learning disabilities actually meant.  As I tried to impart the skills necessary to setting an alarm clock, it dawned on me that the meaning of a tiny clock face representing the alarm hour had no meaning to my friend.  The more I tried to explain, the more confused I became.  We gave up and went on to discussing ordering food at a restaurant.  I asked my friend to look over a menu and decide what to order.  She glanced at the menu, looked up and said "I'll have a hamburger and a coke".  I realized then that this young woman had all the clever tricks of a non-reader.  I was impressed.

There was Clarence, a young man who could sew more baseballs than anyone else.  He was never paid for his skill or expertise - none of the 'trainees' were paid anything close to minimum wage.

I recall there was a girl from my high school.  The day she arrived at Arc Industries, she rushed up to me and asked, "Do you remember me?  I went to North Park too, I graduated!  They sent me here, it's a terrible mistake.  Can you help me?  You have to help me!"  I was 17 years old and I said, "Maybe this is an opportunity." I was thinking, adults don't make mistakes.  But of course, they do.  The adults in this woman's life made the mistake of never telling her that she was not actually keeping up with her fellow students.  No one had ever told her that she had a learning disability and what that meant to her future aspirations of a working and family life.

I remember these young people with their talents, their canny abilities to work around various disabilities, their anger, their deeply envious and resentful gazes.  I also remember the gentle Clarence and the sweetness of the staff, especially the cafeteria ladies.  There was kindness and great affection for each person who filled their tray at lunchtime.

Throughout my university career, I worked summers in the field of disability.  I have memories that are so poignant now.  I was a young girl full of good intentions.  Now, I am a seasoned Mom of 57 - I know how to ease spasm, gentle dystonic limbs into relaxation, read meaning into hand gestures and eye gaze.  I remember all my friends at Arc Industries and I wish them well.  I hope they found love and meaning in their lives.
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