I am in the process of applying for internships for the final year of the doctoral psychology program I have sacrificed my life to for the past several years. As tends to be the case with applications, I am going to need to write several essays trying to impress the Powers-That-Be with my knowledge, dedication, work ethic, values, and future goals, all in 500 words or less. I had to meet with the Director of Clinical Training for my program the other day and discuss my goals for internship, as well as my “readiness.” She asked me what I planned on saying in the essays, and asked why I want to work with children with disabilities—particularly children with the disabilities deemed “severe.” I came up with a brilliantly articulated answer, right the on the spot, and she was so bowled over that she immediately stated, “Laura, you will most definitely get the internship placement you desire.” She smiled. I smiled. I left her office, completely reassured and self-confident.
Actually, that’s not what happened at all. Instead, as I usually do in those sorts of moments, I became incredibly awkward, said something along the lines of, “you know, I’ve been thinking about that lately,” and promptly turned a lovely shade of fuchsia. Being the lovely woman that she is, she said “well, don’t you think it’s important to have an answer for this? Internship sites are looking for some sort of direction and reason. You need to have a reason. Some people have a sibling or a family member with a disability. Is that true for you?”
“Well…sort of,” I hesitated. “But not really.”
“Huh,” she said with a look that read ‘there goes our reputation of getting people into good internships,’ and possibly, ‘check this girl’s GPA later as she seems more dense than I remembered.’ I smiled back with what I hoped was confidence, but was probably the mixture of ‘I strongly dislike you’ and ‘please write me a nice letter of recommendation anyway,’ that I was really feeling. I left her office, feeling completely disheartened, rather idiotic, and very much like I would like to go home and have a drink.
What the Director of Clinical Training doesn’t know, however, is that the question “why do you want to work with people with disabilities?” stirs everything inside me in such a way that I am moved beyond words. What she doesn’t know is that, when I try to answer that simple question, dozens of faces of the children I have learned from flash into my mind, and I am overwhelmed by their beauty and their energy that is still so alive in me. What she doesn’t know is that this work is something that I feel in the core of my being, is what feeds my soul, is what drives me, and I have no idea where it came from, why it’s there, or what sparked it. I only know, in the same way that I know that I must write, that this work is the work I was put here to do. I only know that I have known this, inexplicably, since I was around 10 years old. To summarize this in a sentence is impossible. To summarize it in clinically competent, professional writing, in 500 words or less, takes away everything that is beautiful and meaningful and soul-full in this work and in me. This is why I end up with profound answers like “well, um…I guess I just really like it.”
I was going through some pictures the other day when I was feeling completely burned out with school and life and caring and feeling. I found a picture of me that told a story I had not thought of in quite a while, and in this picture, I remembered why I do what I do—what I wish I had been able to tell the Director of Clinical Training. I work with people with disabilities because of people like Jasmine. This woman, “Jasmine,” was only in my life for two weeks. At 26-years-old, Jasmine was affected by profound mental retardation, severe cerebral palsy, scoliosis, epilepsy, and most prominently, neglect. One night, I sat down with Jasmine and stared at her for a moment, wondering how society could have failed a person so thoroughly and completely. In the two weeks I had worked with her, I had been unable to truly connect with her, and I wondered how I could have also failed this young woman so thoroughly and completely. I had never known it could hurt in my chest and the pit of my stomach just from looking at a person so clearly unable to get what she needed from anything or anyone. Feeling completely hopeless, I unhooked the belt on Jasmine’s wheelchair, put one hand gently around her body and the other under her legs so that I was cradling this 26-year-old woman like an infant. Gently, I sat her in my lap, brushing the hair from her face and soothing her—or more likely myself—with quiet murmurs. I sat for 45 minutes holding her, singing, and talking to her quietly. I got no reaction from her, but there was a place in me that relaxed, knowing that I had done my best. I had tried.
When I began to move to put Jasmine back in her wheelchair, I noticed her eyelids fluttering until, slowly, her eyes opened. Her brown doe-like eyes stared right into me for a moment, searching. It was then, for the first time in 14 days, that I saw her. She looked deep into me with eyes filled with an innocent wonder, intense pain, incredulous curiosity, and immeasurable depth. Those eyes had seen things, felt things, experienced things I could never begin to imagine. Her mouth twitched and then spread wide into a grin as her eyes opened wider and her smile filled both of our souls. We had connected, and I realized what a gift she had given me—the gift of her presence, her beauty, her trust—in a world that had denied and overlooked these gifts for so many years. I knew only two things: I had seen Jasmine, and she was beautiful.
So when people ask me why I want to work with children with “severe disabilities,” I don’t know what to say. I work with people with disabilities because I believe we as a society constantly underestimate and deny what they bring to us and to our world. I believe the people we label as “severely disabled” are waiting, just as we all are, to show ourselves to a world inadequate in communicating with our true selves. I believe every person is a whole and beautiful individual full of life and potential and lessons for all of us, if only we learned to speak one another’s’ language. Because I have seen this, because I know it is there, I see it as my duty to look to that deeper place until I find the person longing for connection in an incomprehensible world that makes no attempt to comprehend. Undoubtedly, eventually, we will meet—if only for a second. When our souls meet in the uncommon ground between us, how could that not be beautiful?