Thursday, December 21, 2006

My Daughter's Future? Hell no!!

Jack appeared to be finished with his lunch. The only thing in front of him on the table was crumpled paper. His blue lunch box sat a little to his left, and he was pulling the straw in and out of the Styrofoam cup which contained his soda.

Although Kevin’s lunch appeared unopened, his head lay on his right arm which was stretched across the small table at which Jack and Dorothy also sat. Dorothy, who was sitting next to Kevin, folded her lunch wrappings several times over, and then placed them into her green lunchbox with quite a ladylike flourish.

At another small table right next to Jack’s, Kevin’s and Dorothy’s, sat Rico, and two African/American women. The women were talking in a very animated fashion to each other about the problems they had both experienced earlier that day getting Jack to board to van to make the trip to the mall. Rico was quietly humming to himself, swaying almost imperceptibly from side to side.

Jack, Kevin, Dorothy and Rico all wore the badge which distinguished them as people with cognitive disabilities – a fanny pack. In addition to the fanny pack, all wore clothes with no fasteners – elastic waist pants, teeshirts, and shoes with Velcro closures. Each looked rather unkempt – their hair was at least two weeks past needing a haircut; their clothes were not pressed but rather looked almost as if they had been slept in; their white crew socks were pulled up to different lengths, and in Jack’s case, were disappearing into his cheap, generic brand tennis shoes. Dorothy wore no makeup and her clothes were not of the current fashion but rather resembled clothes one’s aging grandmother might be seen wearing. Neither Jack, Kevin, Dorothy or Rico would make eye contact with anyone that passed their tables. They would not, in fact, even make eye contact with each other. All four seemed to be in their mid to late twenties or early thirties.

The two African/American women also wore a badge of sorts – an air of authority, almost like that one would find in a parent minding children, children who at the moment seemed more annoying than charming.

Although I had seen groups of people like this many times in the local malls and restaurants, and I knew that they were group home residents – group homes which served ‘clients’ with cognitive disabilities – today this group of people grabbed my attention and refused to let go. I sat and ate my lunch at a table just behind theirs, and tried to watch them without seeming to stare. And, I wanted desperately to catch Jack’s eye and smile at him. I’m not sure why that urge was so overwhelming on this particular day, but I was disappointed when I never could do that.

When the two women in charge had determined by some signal not discernable to me that lunch was over, Jack, Kevin, Dorothy and Rico were instructed to pick up anything left in front of them and put it in their lunchboxes. All four were then instructed to get up, one at a time, and throw their soda cups into the trashcans. When Jack pushed out his chair to get up before Kevin had actually returned to his seat, he was admonished by one of the women in charge. He obediently sat back down and waited for Kevin to return to the table.

Finally, when everyone’s soda cups had been disposed of, the four clients stood and waited patiently for the two women in charge to give them the signal that it was time to take a stroll through the mall.

I walked slowly behind them, again not wanting to intrude on their group, but wanting desperately to observe a while longer. I guess I expected Jack, Kevin, Dorothy and Rico to become more animated as they strolled through the mall. I thought the window dressings and other people might grab their attention. I almost expected them to head off in several different directions, their individual interests driving their feet forward. But that was not what I saw. I saw the two women in charge leading the slow-moving group, and the four clients trudging slowly behind, not seeming the least bit interested in their surroundings. They were in almost a single file line, and at the end of the line was Jack, working desperately to pull his underwear from his behind where it had apparently gotten ‘stuck’. As much as the group seemed to want to be invisible, the eyes of anyone who passed the group stared for a moment longer than is considered polite, and then were quickly averted.

After the group had made the circular trip through the mall’s lower level, the women in charge herded the four to the exit door and their waiting van. Again, I was reminded of parents getting their children loaded into the family vehicle. Jack, Kevin, Dorothy and Rico were told to put their seatbelts on. When Jack seemed to ignore that request, one of the women in charge, reached over him and buckled the seatbelt for him. Jack immediately unhooked the seat belt, and just the slightest hint of a mischievous smile crossed his lips. The woman in charge buckled him in again, and again Jack quickly unhooked the seatbelt. At this point, the woman in charge admonished Jack and said that if he did not leave his seat belt fastened, he would not get any ice cream after dinner that night. This time, there was no hint of the smile that had previously danced across Jack’s face. He sat grim-faced looking down, and no longer tried to unhook his seatbelt.


rechal said...

That's a great piece of writing. Not sure where you are in Virginia, but I'm in Norfolk. and am on the board of Hope House Foundation. Hope House is the only organization in Virginia that serves adults with developmental disabilities exclusively in their own homes, and from what I can see, treats the people it supports with far more dignity and respect than what you witnessed at the mall.

Found your blog through a comment you left on Stephanie Klein's blog. You may also be interested in "Chewing the Fat," Dave Hingsburger's blog. Dave lives in Canada and writes prolifically (and well) about the rights of people with disabilities, and particularly about sexual issues. I heard him speak at a Hope House staff retreat this fall and he was utterly riveting. I wish the best for you and Ashley. If I can be of any help to you, please let me know at

Ashley's Mom said...

Rachel, thanks for the comment. I am in the Richmond area, but I grew up in Norfolk. My twin brother still lives there.

I am familiar with Hope House. My oldest daughter, Jessica, received counseling services from Hope House. Even though we are in Richmond, my local community service board contracted with them to provide the services. The counselor would drive to Richmond every couple of weeks to meet with Jessica. After a while, we all realized that Jessica's issues were a little more significant than we originally thought and we had to move on to more intensive services, but Hope House was a good choice for us in the beginning.

Jessica is 16 years old. I adopted her when she was 9. She had spent her life moving through the foster care system and was physically, emotionally and sexually abused along the way. She was a very troubled child but she has made some good progress in the last few years.

Thanks also for the information about Dave's blog. I will definitely check it out. I am passionate about advocating for the rights of people with disabilities and spend every extra minute I have to that end.

Again thanks for the comment and your contact information.

rechal said...

Dear Deborah,
I checked your blog to see if you had made any new posts, and lo, you had. Love that picture of Ashley -- she seems so happy. And I'm glad to hear that you're in touch with her birth mother as well. You sound like an amazing mom.

It broke my heart to hear about Jessica's journey through the foster care system. I was sexually abused by my father for years, and it still boggles my mind how anyone could hurt a child in any way -- especially a foster or adoptive parent. What the hell kind of oversight do those agencies do, anyway? Why would someone take in a child who's already been hurt, only to hurt them again?

Dave Hingsburger's blog url is:

You may also be interested in Lynne Seagle's blog: Lynne is the Executive Director of Hope House, and has been one of my best friends for more than twenty years. Perhaps you met her when Jessica was receiving services from us, or perhaps you just dealt directly with the counselor. But if you do ever get the chance to hear her speak, jump at it. She's an incredible advocate, and an amazing thinker. Although I do wish I had the time to edit her blog posts for clarity and grammar. : )

Incidentally, I did the public service announcements on Hope House's website about fifteen years ago. We filmed them in my apartment, and they've now been franchised all over the country. Check 'em out: I really like the very human way in which the people we served were portrayed. As in, just people.

Take care. I look forward to reading more about Ashley and your family.