Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Goodbye ORI!

As my time in Missoula nears its end, I have become reflective about my time here and a little sentimental about the people who I will deeply miss. For the last year I have worked as the "Activities Supervisor" at Opportunity Resources Inc. ( , one of the largest non-profit organizations serving people with developmental disabilities in Montana.
I have truly enjoyed my time at ORI for two reasons; the innovative and progressive programs and the 100+ wonderful clients I get to work with everyday. Although there are many things about ORI that I would change if I could, overall the organization is doing very important and innovative things in Missoula. Our clients are viewed with their strengths and abilities in mind rather than their faults and deficiencies - everyone should be given the opportunity to succeed and contribute to their family and community. ORI employs people in a wide variety of settings; the ranch that raises sheep, chickens, and grows thousands of pumpkins, the wood shop, the document destruction (shredding) facility, downtown cleanup crew, the federal building cleanup crew, and more. Luckily productivity and work are not the only aspects of ORI's mission - my job involves getting people who are not working involved in community activities and events. I appreciate the focus on vocational habilitation at ORI, but I am glad that I am involved exclusively on the "fun" side of things because recreation and community integration are goals that are often overlooked for people with developmental disabilities.

One thing I have learned over the past few years while working with people with developmental disabilities is that the general public has severe anxiety about interacting with this population. I believe this is mainly due to inexperience - most people just don't know how to act and then become embarrassed. Should I treat them like a child? Like a peer? What if they won't leave me alone? There are no simple answers to these commonly thought (but seldom expressed) questions. My only answer would be to treat them as you would any other stranger - don't speak with a patronizing tone or "talk down" to them. Use simple vocabulary if necessary, but don't assume they can't communicate on your level. One of the most enjoyable aspects of my job has been to observe positive interactions between the public and my clients - it is a win-win for both parties.

Another source of anxiety for people is what terminology to use when discussing people with developmental disabilities. Fortunately, this is a simple problem to solve - use "people first" language. Always refer to the person then the disability. Notice that I say people with developmental disabilities rather than developmentally disabled person. The same is true with more specific disabilities such as Down's Syndrome or Autism. Putting the disability first conveys that it is their defining feature, but in reality it is one of hundreds of that individuals characteristics. Would you rather be called a "math challenged person" or a "person who is challenged by math"? It is also important to note that the terms "retarded", "mentally challenged" and "special" are no longer used because they have too many negative connotations. This isn't a political correctness issue, it has nothing to do with politics, it is a respect and dignity issue. Most important is to not let your anxieties and fears get in the way of interacting with truly extraordinary people because they have been labeled as a person with a disability.

So only two and a half days of ORI left - it will be missed. I look forward to using what I have learned to help people with disabilities in less developed nations live to their full potential.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The transition begins.

So Jess left two days ago, my family left yesterday with my cat, and I've spent most of the day tearing up the apartment. Needless to say it has been an emotional Sunday. Thankfully my friend Cameron came over last night for the Montana Wild Game Meat Feast of 2008: many pounds of duck and deer kebabs. Today we had to hike Mt. Sentinal to work off the epic meal.

The act of throwing away or donating 90% of my "stuff" has been a difficult but rewarding experience. I realize I don't need most of what I've accumulated over the years, but each object has many memories and associations attached to it. For example - I know I don't need 6 T-Shirts (that don't even fit), from various summer camps, but I feel like throwing them away will further remove me from the memories of the camps. Slowly but surely I am making progress on the disassembly of the apartment. Once it is all over and I am on the road heading for Jess at Wabun, I will finally feel the freedom and reward that I am working towards. Until then, more packing, cleaning and packing some more.

Two more weeks of work, and I'm off to Ontario!