Try To See Each Other Out There

A new school year is right around the corner. I love teaching psychology courses. I love teaching. I love students. I love Anne Arundel Community College. I have a great number of “loves”, am I right?

The biggest “love” (other than the guy in the picture with me – married 32 years now) is that I am in a place where numerous opportunities await. An over all “motto” on my campus is “Engagement Matters“. I know this sounds like I’m tooting my own horn, but I was doing “engagement matters” before “Engagement Matters”. This isn’t some special talent, skill, nor ego booster. I try to see… really SEE the students in my classes. Why?

I have been invisible in my pain and loneliness before.

Having just one person notice and tell me they cared made all the difference.

It is relatively easy to see people who are versions of “self”. I want to tell you a story that for me, was the catalyst for changing how I see my students. Many of our faculty offices at Anne Arundel Community College are shared. Several years ago, I was in the adjunct faculty office sitting in one of 5 desks. I usually get to know the other Psychology faculty, but this specific office is shared by other departments. To this day, I have no idea who this teacher was. I only know she taught history. A student was meeting with her. The student was sitting in an easily recognizable “defensive” position, just oozing aloofness and apathy about what she was hearing. It seemed she had done poorly on an exam and had met with this professor to see what kinds of extra credit were available. Unfortunately, this teacher was not really seeing her. Perhaps the student felt backed into a corner? Maybe an earlier excuse she had provided (that I had not heard) was shot down. All I know for sure was that she had given up trying to get the professor to cut her a break and instead protected herself with a belligerent, bored, and apathetic attitude. My class start time was approaching so I packed up my stuff and headed outside with Milo (my service dog) to give him one more potty break before class.

When I returned to the building, this student was sitting in an alcove crying her eyes out. I “saw” her, as did Milo-bear. He led me over to where she was sitting and I sat down next to her. Milo put his head on her knees. She looked up in surprise and then continued to “release heart pressure” as she gently stroked Milo’s head. I didn’t say a word. She had seen me in the faculty office. (It’s hard to miss a professor with a service dog). She didn’t say a word.

erm… Milo didn’t say a word (but was “speaking” volumes).

About 15 minutes later, she quietly said “thank you” and gathered her things and left. I grabbed my stuff and headed to the elevator, now fairly late to class.

Sorry, sorry, SORRY” I chanted as I rushed into class out of breath. “Sorry, I’m late!

My students looked up and smiled, putting their phones up that they had been using to take advantage of my tardiness. “Drew” (name changed) piped up and said, “Bob Burg, right?“. Another student explained, “Yup. We saw you with that student having a meltdown!

I stood there a little bewildered trying to catch up with what they were saying. Another student (able to decipher the confused look on my face), added, “Yeah! Remember the meme you shared in class last time?

In my Psych of Relationships class we had just covered communication and learning to take an interest in others – even total strangers, and WHY we should do so. I had just shared in the last class, a slide with this photo/meme:

I had steered our discussion towards seeing beyond the words. Seeing someone who is hurting can quite literally mean the difference between life and death. We discussed different opportunities we have had. Opportunities to take a few minutes to make a difference and to CARE. Sometimes a topic just “takes off” in class and numerous students shared how it felt for someone to take an authentic interest in them and to really SEE them.  Through a “Poll Everywhere” activity, we took a quick class vote of who was currently going through something difficult and felt invisible and alone in their pain. Nearly 87% of the class signed in to say “this is me“.

The class looked around in astonishment. One student said, “Everyone in here looks happy!

BINGO

We have to look beyond a quick glance. Really SEE the whole person.

This time of year reminds me to make it my heart’s prayer and my default response to be the kind of person who really SEES other people. It only takes a few minutes to show someone you see them. By…

… giving a gentle hug

… asking if they are OK

… just being with them for a few moments

… simply saying, “I care”.

Try to see each other out there.

L. Denise Portis, Ph.D.

©2018 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

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“We Are Not Given a Good Life or a Bad Life”

“We are not given a good life or a bad life. We are given a life. It’s up to us to make it good or bad.” (Devica Fernando)

“We are not given a good life or a bad life. We are given a life. It’s up to us to make it good or bad.” (Devica Fernando)

I believe one of the most self-destructive things a person with disAbility can do is to compare themselves to other people. I have even heard people with disAbilities compare themselves to other people with disAbilities… seemingly weighing “who has it worse“. Y’all? I have done this myself. Believe you me – I get it.

I think people who live with chronic illness or disability do this for one of two reasons:

  1. They are trying to remind themselves they are better off than “so-and-so”
  2. They are trying to discount the perseverance and courage of another because there is “no way they can understand YOUR life” because you have things much worse.

Let me start with the first one.

If you have “stuff”… physical, emotional, and mental challenges, don’t ever compare yourself with someone else also struggling. This is especially dangerous if you end up invalidating your own difficulties. The life challenges you deal with are just as legitimate and real as those faced by other people.

Frankly? Every person you know is fighting a battle you may – or may not – know about. This is the reality of life. Those of us “dealing” with life’s challenges were not given a good life nor a bad life. In spite of what I’ve heard others bellyache, not even God is at fault for your “good or bad” life. As Ms. Fernando stated, “It’s up to US (emphasis added) to make it good or bad”.

So (temporary) pity parties are not allowed? Well of course they are allowed. They are also

expected

normal

even beneficial.

You just can’t stay there wallowing in self-pity. If you believe in the power of “psyching yourself up”, simply do so by focusing on your own life and don’t compare yourself to others. It’s OK to not be OK. It’s not OK to think you should be OK, because compared to others you’ve got it pretty good. The struggle is real and we all have struggles.

Before I leave this point, allow me to just say that I am “born again” about sharing and caring with other people who live with chronic illness and disAbility. We can learn from each other. My greatest “teachers”, those who by example or explanation, coached me to try a different approach, a new assistive device or tool, or to adopt a new mindset to help me succeed.

The second point can be much harder to avoid. As a person with disAbility (late-deafened) and chronic illness (Meniere’s disease), I sit in meetings with my peers feeling frustrated when someone makes a really lame excuse for not doing something well or refusing to take on a responsibility. I think, “Well for love of cracker jacks, who goes around saying they couldn’t complete a task or responsibility because they are just to busy?” (Yes. I really think this LOL).

Who am I to say that someone without VISIBLE disAbility or chronic cannot use “busy-ness” as an excuse? Maybe they are dealing with something you do not know about. Maybe…

Their child has an unhealthy addiction.

They are scrambling to make room for their ailing mother who can no longer live alone.

Their most significant, personal relationship just imploded.

Their doctor wants to see them to re-take a medical test.

At the community college campus where I work, inclusion is the word of the day (and week, month, and year). Yet inclusion – includes – people who seemingly do not fit into a defined diversity group. Diversity implies all the ways we are different. I don’t know anyone breathing who isn’t different in some way. Inclusion, means to universally INCLUDE.

This past week I retired my 2nd service dog from Fidos For Freedom, Inc., specifically from working with me in the classroom at AACC. We started a major demolition and construction project this summer. Unfortunately, after working nearly 3 months on desensitization, Milo is unable to cope with the loud noises and “mini earthquakes” to focus on his job and assist me. I taught two classes this summer (Developmental Psych and Intro to Psych) and they were the hardest classes I have taught to date. I have had the assistance of a service dog in the classroom for 14 years! (Milo will continue as my partner in all other areas and is not retired full-time as of yet). Having to carry all of these assistive devices to work just to be independent in picking up things I’ve dropped or walking without wobbling, has been an emotional, mental, and physical challenge for me.

A couple of weeks ago during one of the breaks I offer (as it is a 4-hour class!), I ran into a colleague who teaches in a different department. I know her well enough that when I said, “Hey! How are you doing?” she answered honestly.

“My life is hell. This is the hardest summer session I have ever taught.”

I will admit my first thought was a flurry of reverse-prejudiced “OH BRUTHER” rationalizations.

I mean… she is healthy and athletic, and in her prime. She has tenure. She is well respected. Her expertise is valued. How is it that SHE is having the toughest summer? She doesn’t have any disAbilities or chronic illnesses! There I went with a silent “eye roll” and judgement simply because the things I was dealing with in adjusting without a partner were so much more IMPORTANT than anything she could bellyache about!

I immediately (mentally) slapped myself up side the head (though likely would have benefited from the real deal), and instead asked, “Well gee! What has been going on?”

Come to find out anything that COULD be going wrong in her life, was indeed going wrong. Her teen daughter was hospitalized and put in long-term care for depression. It came from out of nowhere and no one in the family had seen any warning signs. Early in the summer, she nearly lost her to suicide. Add to that long-term plumbing issues, car troubles, financial woes, and an internet stalker (I kid you not) rounded out the “list”.

Nope. This fellow teacher does not have any disabilities that I am aware of, nor any chronic illnesses. Yet, she too, has been struggling all summer and doing her best to cope. She, like me, chases down and hog-ties that professional smile to paste on right before entering a classroom. She is distracted and suffering from insomnia. She has cried many tears. Embracing true inclusion has taught me to recognize that her struggles are just as real as mine are. I love what Jordan (2011) said in the Diversity Journal: “Inclusion involves bringing together and harnessing these diverse forces and resources, in a way that is beneficial. Inclusion puts the concept and practice of diversity into action by creating an environment of involvement, respect, and connection—where the richness of ideas, backgrounds, and perspectives are harnessed to create business value.”

My colleague’s “stuff” looks different than my own “stuff”. It’s still STUFF. Encouraging and supporting everyone, benefits, well… EVERYONE. No one has everything going for them; a life without problems, fears, or struggles. However, everyone has something going for them.

Everyone.

Denise Portis

©2018 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

 

Shot Down as a Volunteer

One of the big motivators to “finish” while working on my Ph.D., was simply knowing I would again have time in my schedule to do some volunteer work. I suppose it makes sense that many people believe that folks with disabilities or chronic illness are unable to participate in volunteering, community service, and areas of ministry. It has been my experience (27+ years) that people with disability seem to know their limits better than people who are able-bodied. This isn’t always true, obviously, since many of us who identify this way HAVE signed up to do more than we are physically, emotionally, or mentally, able to do. I have, however, met more people who know their limits within the disability population, than those who are able-bodied and habitually over-extend themselves.

Imagine my disappointment and surprise when numerous pleas to allow me to be involved in “extra curricular life” activities, were shot down again and again! I tried very hard to put myself in the “shoes” of the decision-makers and could see perhaps how they might think I have limitations that may interfere with my ability to be “on time and available”. I know it has been nearly five years since I was really able to immerse myself into various community roles as a result of the time and energy required to finish my degree. Maybe it has been an “out of sight/out of mind” reaction?

Regardless, I spent a couple of miserable weeks trying to figure out why I continued to be ignored by the decision-makers in places where volunteer teachers, trainers, and workers were needed. I decided to nix that miserable feeling and look for “other” and perhaps “new” areas to spend some of my non-work hours.

I’m so glad I did.

I am gearing up to initiate on an-campus chapter of Active Minds at the community college where I work. I am very excited about it and believe students will benefit from having a chapter and student group on campus. It will take a good number of months to generate the student body support needed, but I am willing to work hard to see it happen. I would have never LOOKED for something new like this if I had not found other doors closed to me.

Can Do Attitude

Ms. Amado at the University of Minnesota explains that people with disabilities can and should seek to volunteer in their communities as they receive the same benefits other able-bodied volunteers receive. Social inclusion (community membership and friendship), contribution (happiness and satisfaction), developing marketable skills and job opportunities, networking, and status/reputation, are all benefits volunteers receive (Amado, 2001, p. 28). So why do people with disability often struggle to find volunteer opportunities?

Sue Bott, director with Disability Rights of the UK, believes some of the barriers to volunteering are false assumptions. “Rather than thinking about what they can offer, organizations tend to imagine some of the perceived problems having disabled volunteers will cause them” (Hudson, 2013). Rak and Spencer (2016) encourage organizations seeking volunteers to improve the representation of people with disabilities. “Educate stakeholders about the benefits of volunteering and being part of civic, and other community based groups in improving the quality of life of persons with disabilities” (Rak & Spencer, 2016, p. 1705).

This all sounds great, right? Unfortunately, there are very real barriers to people with disabilities even if they find an opportunity to be involved. Transportation can be a significant issue, as can weather-related mobility barriers. One area of need and “very accessible” opportunities, includes mentorship. The disability community has taken very real and positive steps FORWARD, as the result of mentors making a difference. The American Association of People with Disabilities explains the importance of mentors with disabilities:

  • The influence of mentors. Although the family was the most commonly cited influence on employment for the participants, professionals such as college professors, service providers, and employed individuals with disabilities, including benefits planners and community leaders, were also commonly mentioned.
  • The power of mentors with disabilities. The participants in this study were driven to be self-sufficient through the influence, motivation and modeling of other successful people who have disabilities. The mentoring relationship took many forms, from one of general exposure to people with similar disabilities, to a support group, to a close individual friendship. Regardless of the form of mentoring, the effect on the participants was cited as a major factor in their successful transition to work.
  • Support of peers. Many of the participants attributed their drive and success to the mentors they had in their lives. In some cases, peer mentoring occurred in the form of a support group of individuals with similar disabilities.

I know mentors with disabilities that spend numerous hours online, making a difference in the lives of others by being a mentor, coach, or advocate. There are numerous ways to be involved. Even “blogging” is a significant area of service and support. Many mentors with disabilities started out by simply writing about their struggles, successes, and life as a person with disability.

Has a door of opportunity been closed to you? Look around. I guarantee that other open doors are there. We simply have to find them, and walk through! Good luck!

Amado, A. (2001). Impact: University of Minnesota. Retrieved July 30, 2018, from https://ici.umn.edu/products/impact/142/over3.html

Hudson, S. (2013). The Guardian: Is it too difficult for people with disabilities to find volunteering roles? Retrieved July 27, 2018, from https://www.theguardian.com/voluntary-sector-network/2013/aug/14/disabilities-difficult-volunteering-roles

Rak, E. C. & Spencer, L. (2016). Community participation of persons with disabilities: volunteering, donations and involvement in groups and organizations. Disability Rehabilitation, 38(17). doi: 10.3109/09638288.2015.1107643

L. Denise Portis, Ph.D.

©2018 Personal Hearing Loss Journal