CREATING WHAT I KNOW
Judith A. Snow
First, A Story
For many years I have known and learned from a young man named
Peter. He is now in his early twenties and when I first met him
he was 12 or 13 years old. I like to tell people about Peter
because in reflecting on the events of his life I have been introduced
to many realities about how people can achieve positive community
Peter is a person who doesn't speak. He
uses no verbal language and he employs only 3 signs. The sign
he use most reliably is the one for "more," usually
to indicate that he would like to continue to eat. Peter does
walk and with a great deal of assistance and guidance he looks
after his own personal needs. He enjoys participating in a variety
of simple daily tasks such as setting table for a meal, serving
food, and the like. He often enjoys swimming or listening to
music, but otherwise is not particularly athletic or recreationally
minded. He is usually comfortable just hanging around with a
"gang" of familiar friends. Many people would label
Peter severely mentally retarded.
When I first met Peter he had just finished
elementary school. For two years he had been part of a regular
class of students at a private school which was consciously trying
to provide the best educational opportunities to a diverse group
of children whose families could afford to send them to that
school. His participation with the other students and in the
curriculum was supported by a young woman whose role was to do
what was necessary to maintain the students' and teacher's connection
to Peter. The family had borne the cost of Cammie's presence
in the school.
When Peter's days at elementary school
were finished his parents had few options for further schooling
for him. There were no junior high schools where Peter would
be welcome to participate with "regular" teenagers.
Among segregated schools and classes Peter was offered only a
place where he would share his days with a small number of students,
all of whom had significant difficulties in learning and speech,
often coupled with physical limitations. Peter's parents struggled
with the school system to gain, at a minimum, Peter's participation
with children who spoke. But they were refused even this source
of stimulation and challenge for him.
Let me say at this point that Peter's family
recognized that he had very important gifts; in particular the
gift of trust. Peter is unable to predict a great deal about
the world around him. When he enters places he has never been
before, for example when he climbs a flight of stairs that he
has never been up before, he cannot know that there will be a
room at the top of those stairs, complete with a floor, ceiling,
perhaps chairs to sit on, perhaps food to eat. This uncertainty
disappears after a first experience with a new place, but it
also can be very difficult for Peter to know where he is going
at any given time. He simply doesn't have the language to have
a conversation with people about where he is going with them
and what they will be doing there. In spite of this Peter likes
to go places with people and will often go happily where he has
never been before, expressing complete confidence in his guides.
At the special school, when Peter was about
14, his family and friends began to notice a real change in him.
Inside the classroom he spent more and more time sitting quietly
by himself flipping the end of his sock back and forth. In this
state, called "disappearing" by his mother, he became
increasingly less interested in doing even the few things that
went on in the classroom that he enjoyed; things like getting
out lunch bags and arranging the room for the noon meal. When
Peter was doing something he did enjoy like swinging in the schoolyard
it became difficult to coax him to move on to a new activity.
He began to resist other's guidance frequently. What was happening
to Peter's great gift of trust? If he learned to resist other's
guidance how could he live anything but a very restricted life?
His parents and friends were deeply worried.
After trying unsuccessfully to get Peter's
school principal to move him to a more stimulating class, his
parents decided to hire someone to go to school with him. With
their own money they recruited a young man, David: an artist
who had extensive experience with the sort of life situations
that often confront people labeled handicapped. David's fundamental
job description was to find interesting things for Peter to do
at school, helping him to keep connected with his world.
Within three weeks David was saying that
either Peter and he had to get out of that school or he would
have to resign. The basic problem was that there was nothing
of genuine interest or importance happening at that school and
so there was nothing to connect Peter to. David was going crazy
there, much less Peter!
Peter's parents were faced with a real
crisis. They feared that if they withdrew Peter from the "special"
school system and if things did not work, their relationship
with the segregated school board could be difficult to establish
again. However they knew that David wasn't exaggerating and that
Peter was losing ground. They decided with great trepidation
to permit David to withdraw Peter from school.
And so David and Peter began to wander
the city of Toronto. There was some direction to their travels
but not much. They created a list of friends' homes to visit
on a frequent basis. They tended to follow the subway line because
David doesn't drive. They often dropped in on coffee or doughnut
shops or grocery stores because there their presence wouldn't
be remarkable and because Peter likes food. Here and there they
found jobs that they could do for neighbours like sorting stuff
or stowing boxes. Often they seemed to be just wandering.
In a short period of time David contacted
a number of alternative high schools run by the public school
board. At one in particular he found a friendly welcome. The
administrator took the opportunity to get to know David and Peter
better. After continued exploration it seemed that the students
also were interested in Peter and had some ideas about how he
could participate with them. The structure of the school allowed
the students some real say in the way their curriculum was developed.
It became clear that at this school there would again be a genuine
opportunity for Peter to be involved with his peers in interesting
ways. David and Peter were once again going to school.
Peter soon had several regular activities.
His day would often include setting up the cafeteria for lunch
and tidying up after. Food preparation for himself and others,
and eating, were regular events along with frequent trips at
recess and breaks to the local coffee shop with other students.
Students worked with Peter on different ways that he could enjoy
using the class computer. David and Peter often handled the mail
for their school plus another high school near by.
But perhaps the most unpredictable activity
that Peter got involved with was a sound poetry class. It seems
that there is a form of poetry based on inarticulate sounds,
building words and phrases around the impressions that these
sounds evoke in the artist. The students were fascinated by the
sounds that Peter makes and, at one of the planning sessions
that were held to design Peter's participation at school, the
idea was born to have a sound poetry class. The class was coordinated
by a friend of David's who is a poet, and the students, including
Peter, worked on a variety of compositions based on his and other
people's sounds. At the end of the year the class put on a performance
at a small club in downtown Toronto, with Peter taking part in
After approximately two years at this school
it seemed time to move on. Peter was now 17, an age when many
teenagers are thinking of leaving school. David and Peter hit
the bricks again. But this time there was a great deal more focus
in their travels about town.
David lived in the west end of Toronto,
occupying a former warehouse where he had plenty of room to construct
large sculptures. His neighbourhood was culturally and functionally
diverse with a rich variety of people and activities in all sorts
of small interesting places. Peter lived in a much more subdued
part of town. David decided to bring him daily to be part of
the general hubbub of the west end. Once again in a remarkably
short period of time a pattern began to emerge.
Daily the pair would travel throughout
the neighbourhood and along the east-west subway line. Frequent
stops included coffee and cheese shops, small stores, and local
churches. They had time and inclination to stop and chat, have
a snack, do a chore or run an errand. David soon discovered that
there were small organizations in the area, working on a shoestring
to achieve a more peaceful world, a cleaner environment, or other
similar projects. Peter and David began to help runoff brochures,
get mailings out, deliver packages in the area, etc. In a short
time they were just part of the regular scene, fulfilling their
very much appreciated function. Peter was chosen as Volunteer
of the Year one Christmas and was written up in the local newspaper.
Other neighbours took notice of the presence
and activities of Peter and David. People on the regular route
would talk about this pair to each other, and if David happened
to be seen without Peter people would enquire about Peter's health
and whereabouts. A local United Church minister opened his church
hall for meetings of people interested in responding better to
the lives of vulnerable people among us. Neighbours began to
talk about the west end as a community. Peter's parents moved
in to the area to foster and be part of this new life.
One of the frequent stops became the residence
of some Anglican monks. Quite possibly the initial attraction
was that these men liked to put on some of the best lunches in
town. But one of the monks was the priest at the nearby Anglican
church and he invited Peter and David to participate in the Sunday
service with him. Soon after that he invited Peter to serve the
alter during the Eucharist. Peter continues in this role more
than two years later. The priest says that this is one of the
best things that has ever happened to him and the parish.
You see, one of Peter's greatest gifts
is that he likes food, and the communion service is all about
sharing a deeply significant meal as a community, rich and poor,
young and old, stable and vulnerable together in the presence
of a God who is Himself our food and nurturer. In his deep, respectful
and radiant understanding that a meal is being prepared and served,
Peter recalls the priest and the congregation to a renewed appreciation
of their shared ritual.
In a short time the brothers began to invite
families with "different" children and other vulnerable
members of the parish to take a more active role in the community
life. Some began to be altar servers as well and others began
to be involved in other ways. All expressed that they felt welcome
in a way which was virtually unique in their lives. The congregation
came to life with a renewed interest. Meetings were held to decide
how the congregation could respond more effectively to their
vulnerable members. They looked for a way to help these people
find the supports they require so that they would not be forced
to move out of the neighbourhood into group homes and nursing
The congregation decided to set up a trust
fund to help raise funds and channel government dollars for hands-on
support to these vulnerable members. In addition a group formed
a planning and action body to help each of the effected families
and individuals clarify their needs, prepare proposals and find
the necessary resources and personal support.
All this is the result in good part of
the presence and participation of Peter, a young man who has
never spoken and who is labeled by health professionals as severely
mentally retarded. Yet within the space of less than 6 years
and while still in his teens Peter's impact on his community
rivals that of most mature, active, capable and able-bodied,
adult citizens. Peter has been a poet, food handler, odd-job
man, messenger, neighbourhood organizer, peace activist, community
builder and evangelist. He has never acted alone but few successful
people do. David and others have been key to every development,
but the impetus has come from Peter.
Reflecting on these facts has caused me
to notice and learn much about what it means to be a fulfilled
human being. Peter's contribution has also caused me to think
about what it could mean to be a person who doesn't speak. Finally
Peter's life, as well my own physical disability and my reflections
on the lives of others who have been labeled handicapped, have
caused me to ponder many issues around disability itself. I am
writing this to bring you Peter's story and some of my ponderings
Once my father told me that in ancient
China the very rich or powerful families would bind the feet
of young girls. As these girls grew up they became unable to
walk more than a few hobbled steps. If a woman were truly rich
and powerful she would give up walking altogether and she would
also grow her finger nails until her hands were heavy and functionless.
She would be carried about all day by slaves who bore her chair
and her cushions to support her hands. They would feed her and
look after her every need.
Now what is interesting to me about this
story, and the reason my father told it to me, is that my body
works as if I were one of those ancient Chinese ladies. I get
around in a fancy motorized wheelchair and a van adapted with
a wheelchair lift. I type on a computer with a breath control
that reads my puffs and sips as Morse Code and translates the
code into letters and computer controls. Otherwise my every physical
need from eating to driving the van must be met by a team of
attendants. These attendants cover a 24 hour shift and their
wages are funded with government dollars.
One critical difference between my life
and that of an ancient Chinese lady is that she was considered
to be of value in her society just because she was there. Her
mere presence as a symbol was of more value than any other potential
contribution she could make and she was supported and shaped
through great suffering to become that symbol.
In my world, people are valued according
to their conspicuous function and activity. Few things are viewed
more negatively than disability in my society. People with apparent
disabilities are usually subjected to endless efforts to "cure"
them or, like Peter, educate them out of their differences. All
the time this is going on they are also being segregated out
of everyday life and being denied ordinary, obviously desirable
experiences such as work, play, income, friends and intimacy.
In a great many parts of our society people with disabilities
are also being selected for death. Today doctors regularly use
amniocentesis to discover Down Syndrome, (which Peter has), or
Muscular Dystrophy, (which I have), or Spinal Bifida, and then
recommend abortion for this reason only. Others are denied ordinary
health care or important services, leading to death from treatable
infections, starvation, etc.
Many years ago I started to ponder how
one society could value one physical and mental state so highly
that people would put their children through torture to ensure
they attained it while another would value the same state so
negatively that it would kill any children if possible if they
happened to develop it. Even more important to me, I began to
try to figure out how people could be persuaded that disability
is not a threat. Although disability may be viewed as negative
itself that does not mean that the people who are disabled could
not be seen as also embodying other possibilities. On the other
hand is disability so negative as to have no redeeming qualities
Here is an important clue I had. People
who know a person with a handicap very well, someone such as
a parent, sibling or a family friend, will often say about that
individual that they are a wonderful person and that this was
not apparent to them at first. For example, a young man I know
is a person who doesn't speak. He is attending a neighbourhood
high school. His support circle publishes a newsletter for family
and friends to tell of his goings-on. In a recent edition of
his newsletter the support worker made a point of saying how
unexpectedly enjoyable her time with him has been.
My point is both that people virtually
always discover something that brings them pleasure when they
get to know someone who is labeled handicapped and that this
pleasurable discovery virtually always comes as a genuine surprise.
But when we meet new people in general we usually do discover
something about them that we like. Hardly ever do we hate everything
about someone both on first meeting and after getting to know
them better. So why are people so surprised by this discovery
when confronted by a person who is called handicapped?
By following this question I came to this
realization. Everyone is gifted.
This realization is partly masked from
us because we usually think of gifts as being extraordinary qualities.
We think that only a few people have them. But giftedness is
actually a common human trait, one that is a fundamental to our
capacity and need to be creatures of community.
Gifts are our capacities to create opportunities
for ourselves and others to interact and do things together,
things that have mutual meaning. So, for example, if you are
interested in an evening's fun of softball and you have six people
on your team you have an opportunity to offer to several people,
including some innocent bystanders who might just end up watching.
But you can't play softball without at least seven people per
team. So when the seventh person comes along, willing to play,
that person's presence is a gift to many other people, even if
she or he doesn't play very well.
Our presence is the fundamental gift that
we bring to the human community. Presence is the foundation of
all other opportunities and interactions, of everything that
In addition to our presence each of us
has a grab bag of other ordinary gifts that allow for us to create
and participate in daily opportunities. From getting up, making
breakfast, washing dishes or loading a dishwasher, talking on
a telephone, writing on a piece of paper, listening to another
person, getting from one place to another, enjoying some music,
expressing an opinion, going to a meeting, playing with a baby
or having fun with a friend, a variety of simple activities taking
place in ordinary places on ordinary streets make up the fabric
of the vast majority of our work, family life, private life and
Beyond ordinary giftedness there is extraordinary
giftedness, the kind that extends opportunity for interaction
and meaning to a larger number and variety of people. One person
is not just nice to be with but is a truly funny comedian; another
doesn't just get around but dances on skates beautifully; another
not only shows up for the PTA regularly but has ideas that are
engaging and changing the face of the local school board.
Each person has a variety of ordinary and
extraordinary gifts. The people whom we call handicapped are
people who are missing some typical ordinary gifts. However such
people also have a variety of other ordinary and extraordinary
gifts capable of stimulating interaction and meaning with others.
Seeing disability somehow prevents us from
seeing the gifts in a person, at least at first. And so we are
surprised when we find ourselves experiencing pleasure, meaning,
and opportunity in the presence of a disabled person.
Furthermore giftedness grows from different
roots making it possible to speak of three different sorts of
gifts. First, some gifts seem to arise simply because of the
unique makeup of the individual. One person picks up whistling
at age 5, another has always enjoyed listening to other's stories.
Secondly, some gifts are tied to a general characteristic. Only
women bear babies. Lastly, many gifts arise from the efforts
that an individual makes to deal with her or his experience.
After a long fight with cancer a person may develop a high tolerance
for pain, an appreciation for beautiful sunrises and the desire,
time and capacity to visit severely ill people.
I began to play with this analysis while
considering Peter's life. Clearly some of the events around him
arise because of the uniqueness of Peter himself. For example
Peter's love of food and his great gift of trust have shone through
virtually every aspect of his participation during these many
years. Some of his gifts have emerged primarily because of the
interaction of the world on Peter and him on the world. His participation
as a sound poet falls into this category. But other gifts are
grounded in Peter's disability itself.
People around Peter often report that they
feel more in touch with, more grounded in time and space. One
of Peter's contributions has been to give many people a sense
of neighbourhood in west end Toronto. A common aspect of disability
is a relative slowness or awkwardness of movement. Peter walks
in a slow, deliberate manner, often slowing the pace of his more
typical peers. He also relates very much in terms of the familiarity
of the space he is in. When you walk with Peter you have a beautiful
opportunity to relate to the unique character of the time and
space you are in right now. For a few moments space is more than
distance to cover and time is richer than a measure of how long
it takes to get from here to there. Thus being with Peter can
be a spiritually grounding experience for a modern citizen who
is frequently dislocated from time, space and neighbourhood.
This gift of Peter's arises directly from his Down Syndrome.
People with mental and physical disabilities
have a common experience in today's world which makes them a
bearer of some gifts that are typical for them but not for ordinary
citizens. For example services that are directed toward people
with disability are usually driven by motives that are based
in charity, therapy or protection. In almost all cases these
services are directed by professionals who view themselves as
experts on what the client needs because of being disabled.
In contrast ordinary citizens receive services
which are driven by the understanding that the citizen desires
to be and must become an active participant in society, playing
some roles in keeping regular daily life going. Thus ordinary
services attempt to maintain the participation of people, keeping
the roads open, fuel in cars and busses, food in stores, information
universally available, water on tap, sewers flushing and children
being introduced to the meaningful symbols of the culture. Although
not everything runs smoothly all the time and one can always
criticize and imagine a better way in which these things and
others could be done it is clear that the basic purpose of ordinary
services is to nurture the capacity of the ordinary citizen to
do whatever that citizen decides she or he wants to do.
When I was in high school one of the students
was an Olympic diver, a veteran with many medals. My community
seemed to know just what she needed to continue to be both a
gifted diver and one of our classmates. We knew that she needed
access to the swimming pool at 5:30 a.m. every morning, she needed
tutoring to keep up when she traveled, she needed friends, recognition
and to graduate along with us. She needed a volunteer sports
club locally and various national and international organizations
to maintain her opportunities to dive.
Now a student with disabilities needs exactly
the same sort of opportunity and structure to participate along
fellow students. But in our world it is fun and exciting to support
an Olympic diver and a burden to support a child with disabilities.
The way we view giftedness makes all the difference.
My point is that disabled people live in
a world which fails to foster participation for them. Also the
existence of this "special" set of services often blocks
people from access to regular services. The most blatant example
of this is special education. As more and more special classes
and schools were established in the 50's and 60's more and more
children were segregated from the regular classroom. But special
education leads more than 90% of the time to sheltered workshops
and institutionalized poverty. Thus children who might have coped
on the margins of society have been systematically cut off from
true participation in the name of therapeutic education.
In what way is this tragic situation a
gift? Many people labeled disabled have discovered that they
can find no automatic place for themselves in society. Instead
they have found the capacity in them selves to dream for and
build something new. Just as Peter created a poetry class where
there was none, a neighbourhood out of a collection of lower
middle-class stores, houses and churches, and a community out
of a bored congregation, so do many other people pushed beyond
the margins find they must create the very opportunities they
require out of the scraps of the world.
As it happens this society functions less
and less well for ordinary citizens, with increasing breakdown
everywhere in our time. In this context the creative capacity
of people with disability has become a gift of great importance.
This gift is bound up with the ability to dream, an ability which
I will describe here.
How did David know what to explore to find
a way to support Peter's accomplishments? Is there a way that
Peter and others like him can let us know about themselves and
their needs and desires other than simply going passively along
when things are going well and resisting when things are not
to their liking? I thought about this for a long time and then
another experience gave me a clue.
In the mid 80's I was giving a workshop
on Building Supportive Relationships to a small group who included
many parents, some of children with handicappist labels. I remember
one woman in particular who was in her mid to late 50's. I was
exploring stories of how people solve problems and develop their
life path. I was doing this as much for my own edification as
This woman told me that when she had been
a teenager she had wanted to be a missionary. As time past for
her, however, she had gotten married in her early 20's and had
3 children. To her it seemed as if she had had to put aside the
dream of being a missionary and carry out the life script of
being a homemaker. But all the while she kept up an interest
in theology and religion, taking a Bible study here and there,
reading theological works or joining a prayer group. When her
own kids were teenagers her marriage seemed rocky and she began
to attend some of the newly formed Marriage Encounter groups.
She found these very fulfilling and soon persuaded her husband
to join with her in these groups. Together they became very active
in Marriage Encounter and at the time of my workshop they were
leaders in the movement.
One day she had realized that for her Marriage
Encounter had become the concrete fulfillment of her much remembered
dream to be a missionary.
I have asked many people about dreams.
For me dreaming is like a delightful mystery constantly teaching
me something and always eluding me just a little. But this is
what I have come to understand about dreaming so far.
Dreams are threads of meaning and insight
that run throughout the daily life and fabric of everyone's individual
life. In fact dreams in some way seem to be part of the very
structure of our life, being part of the very impulse that gives
purpose, meaning and shape to living. But dreams are not confined
only to the individual's experience. They are part of the glue
that brings us together as social beings. Dreams form a basis
of the impulses that cause and allow us to find purpose and fulfillment
in relating to each other. When we dream we are dreaming about
something essential to ourselves and also significant to others
in our lives, others that may not actually come into our lives
for days or years to come. So dreams are not a phenomenon of
the moment but communicate, preserve and carry a form of living
energy across people and time.
As mystical as all this sounds the actual
working of dreams is basically quite simple. Imagine for example
two six year old children. You ask each one of them what they
dream of being when they become adults and they each tell you
that they want to become firefighters. But a person who knows
them both well would know, or could ask to discover, something's
quite different in the dreams of these two children. One is expressing
her interest in being of service to other people and being a
firefighter is the most challenging and service oriented adult
experience she has yet encountered. For the other, lots of colour,
light, noise and excitement are important. Being a firefighter
seems for now his best opportunity to star in a splashy, dramatic
life. Twelve years later we may find a young woman studying at
a community college to become an ambulance paramedic and a young
man apprenticing in summer stock Shakespearean theatre. They
would laugh if you reminded them about being firefighters but
the thread is there alive and strong enough to guide these young
Dreams have a great deal of power in themselves
but they do not act in a vacuum untouched by other factors. In
fact there is a constant dynamic process going on between the
dreaming of people and the real opportunities that a community
offers to its citizens. Dreaming shapes reality and reality shapes
the conscious face of dreaming. Thus there is a political dimension
The story of my missionary friend illustrates
this. When she was a teenager there was no Marriage Encounter.
She couldn't have said at six years of age, "I want to be
a Marriage Encounter leader." Those around her during those
young years probably were at least tempted to say to her, "You
can't become a missionary. There is a war going on. Find a nice
young man after this is over and concentrate on raising your
kids, rebuilding your country's economy and supporting the returning
men to start life over again."
But by putting even a little energy into
discovering and fulfilling the meaning of the dream, the conscious
expression of it changed in fantasy for her and different opportunities
emerged at the same time. Even reading and Bible study gave her
more understanding of her own impulse. They also led her to new
people, new prayer and other groups, ultimately to discover that
other people shared some of the same problems and aspirations
that she experienced. Eventually dream and reality interconnected
for her and many others in a new opportunity, never before available
in that form in the human community.
Experience shapes the never-stopped energy
of a dream like banks guide the waters of a river. And the dream
creates a new dimension of reality like a river wears a rocky
cliff into a sandy beach. Thus dreaming is actually one of the
powers that shapes the human community.
It is important to recognize that in this
way dreaming is like speaking. Both dreaming and speaking seem
to be driven by our conscious will and often seem to be going
on completely within ourselves. They seem to be taking place
as fantasy and as talking to ourselves. But they are also and
most importantly a public phenomenon in that both exist to shape
our relationships and opportunities. Like speaking, dreaming
has the power to create. Dreaming and speaking create each other
like white allows us to see black and black allows us to see
white. Together dreaming and speaking are the stuff of communication.
Ancient philosophies acknowledged that
"the word" was a creative power. Dreaming is a deep
form of communication and is as much a part of "the word"
as speaking is. Just as speech flows from person to person and
through communication media, dreams are also communicated. Dreaming
must be taken seriously as a powerful force shaping our lives.
It became clear to me from Peter and David
that dreaming and listening are human capacities that also are
subject to giftedness. In other words nearly everyone dreams
and nearly everyone listens to the dreams of others but some
people can take these capacities to extraordinary powerfulness.
And like all giftedness this extraordinary power to dream or
to listen to dreams may be spurred from an individual innate
capacity, from membership within a particular class of people
and/or from interaction with personal circumstances.
Let me focus on Peter for a moment. Peter
doesn't speak. He is also perceived as being profoundly handicapped.
In my opinion these two forces have shaped Peter's being so that
he has become an extraordinarily gifted dreamer.
On the one hand not speaking has left wide
open Peter's opportunity to communicate through dreaming. In
fact it could be that in not speaking Peter is not expressing
a disability at all but in some way choosing to not speak in
order to become a better dreamer.
On the other hand Peter has experienced
the greatly reduced opportunity to participate in society that
all people with disability experience at this time. This prejudice
and lack of support and opportunity mean that people with disability
have a very narrowed choice of ways to fulfill their dreams.
Several consequences result. One is that
the individual's dreams fail to be shaped by an on going interaction
with reality and may thus seem to others to remain fantastic,
childlike or unreal and unrealistic. Another consequence is that
the individual squarely faces a choice. She or he may give up
and become a puppet in life, controlled by everyone else's vision
of how this life should unfold. Not giving up means searching
and fighting for even scraps of opportunity to bring dreams to
Another critical consequence of being pushed
to the margins of society is that the individual has a particularly
clear view of just how the opportunities of society itself can
be becoming more and more inadequate. Thus for example a young
woman from North Toronto may have several options to fulfill
her dreams but all of them leave some of her self unfulfilled.
As she moves through her lifetime she may feel many years of
dissatisfaction, but never be able to definitely decide what
is missing or discover that her ennui is shared by nearly all
her typical neighbours. The woman on the margins is much better
situated to see that not only is the margin no place to get genuine
fulfillment but that in fact North Toronto leaves much to be
desired as well. With less to give up she is free to dream of
a completely new society with newly created opportunities. Her
dreams may remain naive in detail but they can become powerful
in their vision of the possibility of something fresh and creative.
The person who doesn't speak and who is
labeled handicapped has an exquisite possibility of becoming
a powerful, highly gifted dreamer. If such a person is offered
the power to interact with daily reality he or she may become
the cornerstone to some intense and beneficial changes. The realization
of this wonderful gift depends on at least two factors. One is
that the individual does not give up and give in to the handicapped
role assigned to him or her. The other is that the person must
be empowered to begin and carry out the necessary interactions
Through his parents, Cammie, David and
later through many others, Peter had just this sort of opportunity.
It is a blessing that Peter did not give up as a child.
Gifted Listening and Waiting
The last subject I would like to explore
is a process that I call listening or, sometimes, listening and
waiting. Dreamers are empowered to bring their dreams to life
by a combination of factors. The principal characteristic of
this empowering force is that it is willing offered to the dreamer
by other members of the community. David provides a good model
of the empowerment that dreamers require.
David could have joined the numbers of
people who were, and are, convinced that they knew what Peter
was all about. Many are the individuals who are certified in
the ways and means of deciding what Peter and his "kind"
need and how they should spend their days and lives. David definitely
could have furthered his career by using his time with Peter
to get on the professional ladder toward such certification.
Instead David put himself in the position
of trying to "listen" for Peter's uniqueness, his dream.
He experimented with a method of trying to observe and sense
the activities and environments, the encounters and relationships
that would provide Peter with opportunities to rub his dreams
against reality. He kept the process going for years, not moving
too far ahead of Peter, but also not stopping at some point of
either frustration or success.
This listening involves a complex process
of putting the other person first. It involves repeated trials
and many experiments. Listening is often done best by a person
who is more familiar with the "territory" than the
dreamer, as this person knows at least some of the "doors"
that can be opened, though perhaps in a new way. The listener
must be prepared to act in a trustworthy way while freely giving
trust to the dreamer even when that person is floundering.
The listener must encourage and challenge
the dreamer or else he or she may never really interact with
daily life as it is. This forcefulness must be kept in balance
with "waiting," or moving forward only when the dreamer
is truly ready to move. Otherwise the dreamer loses control of
the process, becoming subject to the will of the other who would
again define the uniqueness out of the dreamer's vision.
The listener may set aside some of her
or his own dreaming for awhile in order to truly empower the
dreamer. In a listening relationship like David's and Peter's,
however, it becomes clear that it can go on for many years because
it is part of the listener's dream and gift to be a good listener.
The listening relationship thus has the potential to be a mutually
In small ways we have all listened and
waited for one another at some time. But like all gifts, the
humility and willingness that characterize true listening have
been honed to a fine edge by only a few.
Listening and Dreaming a New Community
In the past and at this point in history
we offer the greatest gift and power of listening to another's
dreams mainly to a few powerful members of our world. We freely
give the power and resources to bring dreams true mainly to a
few individuals favoured by relationship, wealth and other lucky
breaks. Other more typical citizens depend on the community as
it was presented to them and other strokes of fate to able to
live out their dreams and enrich the world with their presence.
Still others, like the majority of people
labeled handicapped, have been denied the empowerment of being
included in the listening circle. People, influenced by prejudice
and structures that declare that the people who are disabled
are not truly human and have no meaning in their lives, have
cut off this listening relationship. This has also closed the
opportunity that our communities would be strengthened and enriched
by the vision and efforts of people with disabilities.
Tragically these exiles are sometimes the
very gifted dreamers that the world could rely on the most to
engender creative, renewing change.
These thoughts are offered in the very
personal hope that they may around yourself for an opportunity
to enter into relationship with someone who has been exiled.
Act on the faith that this person has dreams and hopes much like
your own and that this person has meaning in her or his life
that can be conveyed to you and that has the power to enrich
your life and the lives of others.
Suppose for a time that this person may
be the bearer of a deep and creative dream. Bend your will and
your inner and outer ear to listen to this dream. Walk into the
daily activities and environments of life with this person as
dream and reality react in a creative dance of meaning.
Try this and may you rejoice in all that
you create together.
The writing of this article
has been supported by the Secretary of State, Canada, and John
McKnight, Director of the Center for Research in Social Policy and Urban
Affairs, Northwestern University.
E-mail Judith: firstname.lastname@example.org