Today Ned and I had lunch with the clients, staff, and parents of Nat’s Day Program/Day Habilitation Program. This was their annual meeting, and they made it into a Thanksgiving luncheon. It was held at a local community center, in a large banquet hall filled with round tableclothed tables.
The room was packed. I saw someone I knew immediately, a mom of one of Nat’s roommates. I couldn’t pick out Nat at first, but Ned did. Ned told me later that when he saw Nat first see us, Nat mouthed, “Hi Ma-ee Daddy,” with his lips, fish-style. We both laughed at earnest Nat. Anyway, I found him at last, at a table with two other men — Ben and Luc, two staff who sometimes work with Nat. There was handshaking all around. Soon Mikey joined us (the third roommate at Nat’s house).
I liked Ben and Luc immediately. They were very good-natured. A videographer and documentary filmmaker when he’s not doing job coaching, Luc exuded confidence and kindness. He joked and laughed with the others around them.
During lunch I took the opportunity to ask Luc to tell me about Nat at work. “Let me process that for a bit and access that particular file,” he joked. Then he told me about Nat’s day. Nat and another young man know their routines and are mostly self-sufficient, but Luc is with them all the time, to be sure of their safety in the parking lot and to keep them on task. “Sometimes you have to make sure Nat brings back all the carts, not just one,” Luc said. They ride with Luc over to the Shaw’s Supermarket and they punch in their time clocks. They put on their special vests and Nat unlocks the shopping carts and starts gathering them from all over the store and the lot. If it’s raining they work indoors, putting away the baskets and cleaning the bottle-redeeming area. “Nat always knows when I haven’t put the cleaning bottle back in the right place; he makes sure I go get it and put it back right.”
The whole time Luc was talking I felt a buzzing happiness. I could see that Nat was not only safe and among friends, he was also respected for his good work. Luc told me that Nat is “very fast,” and that all the walking is really good for him. He also said that sometimes they take a break and go on a walk, and do some deep-breathing, to center them and get them set up for the rest of the workday. They work for two hours Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and then take another half hour to have lunch in the employee cafeteria. “We all sit together, this supermarket doesn’t try to keep us separate, like some other ones.” This horrified me, that other workplaces separate out their disabled workers and job coaches. Why? What could that possibly accomplish, except to foster isolation in one group, and indifference or fear in the other?
During the event, there was an open mic for anyone to come up and talk about something they are thankful for. Many of the participants (the clients with disabilities) spoke about people they had lost, and how they remembered good times with them. Most of the speakers were a little unfocused, but you could tell that they wanted to express their love for this or that person.
Then one of the young women who had spoken came over to Luc smiling and said to him, “Hey, it’s my favorite Haitian Retard!”
Ned and I looked at each other in pained political correctness. But Luc just smiled good-naturedly and said, “I know that you’re just expressing how good you feel about me,” and diffused all the awkwardness. It was masterful. It was Luc. I did wonder what the R-Word people would think of this interaction. I know I’m opposed to using the word “Retard,” but what if it is a person who has an intellectual disability herself, making a joke and basically Taking Back the Night?
My feeling ultimately was that if Luc thought it was okay, then so did I. At the end of the lunch, Luc told us how happy he was to meet the people in his clients’ lives, “so that I understand where they come from,” (those were probably not his exact words). I was really glad that Nat’s program thought to have this kind of get-together so that we all know where we all come from. Just like in the school days, meeting the people who work with Nat does two good things: it helps me know who is working with him, and it helps them know who is behind Nat. If I could have stood up at the open mic, I would have said I was thankful for Luc.