A Person of Influence

by David Morstad

Like many, my life has been influenced by the people with disabilities whom I have known. Some of those influences have been deeper than others. Meet a woman named Gail.

In spite of her jagged history, Gail was an easy person to be around; though, not everyone felt that way. Born with a mild developmental disability, she had a strong independent streak. She had been, in most ways, a typical young adolescent, eager to rebel against some (most notably, her parents) and eager to please others. As it turned out, that combination of characteristics proved to be dangerous. Gail was easily victimized, pregnant at 15, and confused about relationships, responsibility, and nearly everything else in her life.

At the insistence of her family, she was placed with a service provider early in her 20s and she became a portrait of disconnectedness and utter hopelessness.

“What do you want in your life?” I once asked her.

“I want Marie to leave me alone”, she replied, referring to her roommate at the time.

“I mean for the future… you have any goals? What do you like to do?”

“People don’t think I’m smart, but I am,” she said, “I don’t know what I want, though. I used to work, then I got in trouble. Now I can’t go anywhere.”

“Do you have babies?” she once asked me.

“Yes”, I said, “I have three children.”

Lonely sketch“I have a baby, too”, she said, staring at nothing in particular as she spoke. I understood the message. Gail’s heart was far deeper than anyone would have suspected at first glance. And she ached for direction. She longed to be where I was, walking a typical path into a typical future that, while unknown, was filled with hope. The rhetoric of person centered planning and the you-can-do-anything case management narrative notwithstanding, she knew the truth. For her, the usual path seemed practically and permanently out of her reach.

Gail died young from a congenital heart defect, but I still think of her. In spite of her outward rebellion and denial of aspiration and focus, she thought often – and spoke often – of her daughter. Ill equipped to be a parent, she was still connected and still caring. She was still joined to another, a small, undeniable glimmer of hope for the future, a different life, a better world.   I prefer to think that God was at work in Gail, building that sense of hope and direction.

God was at work in my life, too (not that I realized it at the time).   In spite of our very different life paths, Gail deepened my understanding of ability and disability. She invited me to see the world from a different point of view, to stand in a place that was rocky and unstable, and to share the vulnerability that goes with it. She had experienced a life I never would, and she spoke from a place deeper than I would otherwise have been comfortable to confront. Today, I regret that I never took the opportunity to thank her for that.

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