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Isolated In America

At first, it made me angry, then SAD to watch a group of approximately twenty five developmentally disabled people slowly make their way across the crosswalk and into the grocery store. Don’t get me wrong – – please. I wasn’t angry at the people.

Some things in life are relative. What was considered progress forty years ago might be inappropriate today. When evaluating something we are compelled to ask, “compared to what?” Take group shopping as an example. Is it appropriate to take at least twenty-five developmentally disabled adults into the grocery store in one large group?

In 1975, I was Director of Professional Services in a state hospital in Wilmar Minnesota. Back then, I was excited and pleased when group activities like this happened. The mere idea that these individuals were outside one of the big, old, horrible state institutions was considered monumental progress. Since then I’ve seen improvements in the way developmentally disabled people receive the services they need. That’s why I was surprised when I saw the large group in the crosswalk.

In 2017 it is generally accepted that disabled people should not or do not wish to be put on display. If one of them needs to go to the grocery, he or she has the right to be helped by one person. It’s less likely that the public would notice that one of them needed some help. That is the way life should be, assistance with dignity.

To make things worse, in the parking lot, were four green and blue vehicles with the name of the organization that brought these individuals splashed all over the sides. The largest, a mini-bus contained some trite, demeaning phrase about loving the developmentally disabled. Four vehicles screaming out “Hello – – I’m helpless.”

Inside I needed only two things, a prescription and a gift card. I was, however, intent on seeing what was happening with all the developmentally and/or intellectually impaired people. To my dismay, I found fifteen people crowded closely around one, maybe two staff. They reminded me of a swarm of bees as they completely blocked the aisle. The queen bee was giving orders to individual members of the swarm. She asked one woman to pick up a loaf of bread. A man was told to stay with the group. Most of the group wasn’t paying any attention to what was happening.

On down the narrow aisle, the small mass of humanity crept. Other shoppers had to notice this group and like me, they might have felt a twinge of pity on these poor people’s status in life. Pity, a useless emotion if there ever was one, made even worse by the fact it’s not what an impaired person wants or needs. In my opinion, these people have a right to a higher quality of service.

A few aisles over, another group appeared, hovering and swarming near another staff person. This group was smaller, ten people. At this point, I stopped counting or looking for more swarms. I felt disgusted with the agency responsible for this outing. They might as well have dressed all these individuals in red, or in clown outfits; their presence in the store was that obvious.

I can’t blame the staff. They’re simply doing what they are trained to do – – or allowed to do. Every organization has a culture, an atmosphere which sets the tone of how it behaves. It was abundantly clear the culture of this organization didn’t value the privacy and individualized help each of their clients deserve. My only hope is that other services this organization provides are delivered more appropriately.

I plan to share this little essay with the organization whose staff carried out this large group grocery shopping trip. Perhaps there is a logical reason for doing what they did. For example, maybe they were picking up a few items for a spontaneous picnic. Even then, one or two people could have been selected to do the shopping with the help of one staff member. Other staff could have remained in the vehicles for the safety of the others.

I’m still bothered by this incident, SAD to have witnessed it. SAD that the individuals involved had to live it. I hope my words make the agency angry. Angry enough so that they are prompted to be more respectful of the dignity of their clients.

Kirby V. Nielsen

The Author

My goal is to write excellent novels about impaired people who suffer from unjust treatment. I hope is that my work will inspire the disability community to move forward. Any status quo would make it easier to go back to the dark days of institutionalization and isolation.

1 Comment

  1. Steve Gunn says

    Very good! Time warp? I remember seeing this in Circleville with the local DDschool and their outings at our local grocery as well. However, I must say that these same staff were faithful in bring the same group to our local YMCA for a swim outing. There, the group functioned very well and helped each other. Staff supported but the clients assisted and encouraged each other too. I believe that the one experience helped out the other? You are the expert, brother, just a reflection! Thanks for sharing and your perspective. I see your point.

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