the moments before you enter the room… talking about disability and ableism at Frog Hollow Neighbourhood House

In an acting class that Zev took last year, the kids studied their lines and then when they expected to perform them, the teacher asked them “so what was your character doing before they were about to say these lines?”   The kids were fascinated with this idea of exploring character and what might have happened…

How we became public presenters is another story – 103 presentations over 4 years ago – but this was a really special day because we were invited in to a “new” audience.   We spend so much time in our work thinking about ways to connect the folks we support with their neighbours, but here were their neighbours, the Frog Hollow staff and stakeholders, asking “How can we be more welcoming?”    I think of all our friends with disabilities, and of their parents, so almost endlessly feeling they are not welcomed, and how powerful this is to have a group say, “We want to know how to welcome you!”

Of course the answer, at least in B.C., in what I think is an amazing act of leadership has been profoundly and simply answered by the StartWithHi Initiative, which was based on messages gathered from groups of people with intellectual disabilities: we just want people to not walk past and ignore us, and to say hi.  (Look for phase 2 – which is sounding very exciting!).   And part of that initiative is the exciting and leaderly move of putting the campaign where the community is – on Facebook and Twitter (Twitter has doubled its members from 7 to 14 million over the last year).

But down here, at the grassroots, in the Frog Hollow Neighbourhood House where one of the session leaders is a woman who went to pre-school there and is now in pre-law, where people have “come home” to a new kind of family, there is room for great conversations.   There’s a moment of fear as we look out at an empty room and wonder if anyone is going to show up, and then they come in, and have great questions, and great experiences to share.   One of our most powerful tools is to engage in conversations about giftedness – do you know someone with a disability who is part of your family?  part of your school?  part of your neighbourhood?  part of your workplace?  What gifts do they bring there?   and we begin to make a list together.   People are so excited by this conversation, and we hope they can take this idea back into those places and expand on it there, with their friends, colleagues, fellow participants everywhere from yoga classes to universities to fast food restaurants: “When X comes in, I always feel this great sense of ______ and I love the way he or she _________.”

I talk about my friend Gary, who never disparages my rather hopeless sense of direction when we are going somewhere, and just gently guides me down the right streets, in the right direction, and can remember every tiny and odd parking spot that he’s ever seen.   I put the address of Frog Hollow into my GPS on the way there and ended up at some park in a whole different part of town with the little voice crowing “You have arrived at your destination!”  Gary is far more reliable.   It’s not just a gift for me that he’s a great “abrogator” (which is how he used to pronounce “navigator”), but it’s been a gift for dozens of elderly folks in the one of the most densely populated areas of North America, as he found parking spots in unexpected places and delivered Meals On Wheels to them and  remembered what they liked to talk about and asked after their families and health.   Why focus on the fact that he has Down Syndrome, an IQ of whatever it is, and that he didn’t have access to the kind of education most of us have had, when we could talk about these things he does so marvellously which enrich us and lead to other conversations about our own gifts and the gifts that all of us share with each other?

So we’re in the room, waiting for the participants – three sessions of about 20 each, one after another.   The seats are empty, but will fill up, and the stories will begin to be shared, and the gifts will be listed, and all our hopes for each other will gather…

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