Sunday, April 22, 2007

How's Your News?

In highschool I decided that I wanted to help people with mental disabilities (at that time officially known as the "Trainable Mentally Retarded," AKA "Trainables" or "TMRs"). Our school had the region's largest TMR program, and every year we held the national TMR floor hockey tournament in our gymnasium (you can imagine the size of the crowd for THAT event).

Anyway, all of my good intentions went out the window when I saw Robbie -- one of the more notorious TMRs -- vomiting all over himself in the hallway. I just couldn't do it. For all my good intentions I don't like dealing with other people's bodily fluids, whether they're pooping their pants or just spraying me when they talk. And I quickly learned that I don't know how to talk to anybody who doesn't have at least average verbal skills...children included.

Vanilla recommended I watch "How's Your News," a documentary about a team of mentally and physically challenged people who travel across America asking people -- more or less -- "Hey, how's your news?"

I'm halfway through it and it's making me uncomfortable for several reasons. I don't like seeing people being put on the spot and feeling embarassed (which also dulls my enjoyment of Ali G. and his ilk), and many of the people being interviewed are definitely put on the spot; two of the interviewers have no speech skills whatsoever, so when people are confronted by a strange little man who speaks a gibberish language...well, the situation tends to be awkward.

Worse, however, is the fact that these two virtually mute interviewers are wearing cameras on their eyeglasses, so you get an all-too-real look at what it's like in their world: their arms reach out to people, and the people walk away and pretend not to see them.

The real crushing thing about all this is that *I* would probably walk away as well. I don't like being engaged by strangers on the street because 99% of the time they want something from me, and I suppose I'm just too selfish to barter with strangers. I also suffer a complete nervous breakdown when confronted with non-verbal people; I'm paranoid enough in well-oiled social situations, and I simply don't know how to "act naturally" around people with mental disabilities or severe physical disabilities. Part of me wants to be as patient and understanding as possible, while another part screams "you're being patronizing!" and the third part is frustrated with the whole situation.

Watching "How's Your News?" I have a great love for these people -- who really do seem like sweet souls -- and even though I don't believe *I* would make them happy (or vice versa), I'm thrilled when they meet wonderful, selfless, patient folks who know EXACTLY how to get along with them. And they certainly do, and I can't help thinking that if there's a heaven, those folks won't have to wait in line to get in.


VanillaJ said...

Yes, an argument can be made that "How's Your News" is exploitive. It is painful (if you had a heart) to watch people walk by a spastic, inaudible handicapped man. Some passing faces show distain, or confusion or even panic. But, if you watch the extra footage on the DVD, there's an interview with one of the caretakers for these people. He explains that that what attracted him to work at the retardation camp where he meet the participants was their philosophy that retarded people shouldn't be hidden away. Rather, they should be integrated into society, and despite their various handicaps, every one of them deserves to share and participate in society. I agree that retarded people weren't cloistered as they tend to be, then the rest of us would respond with greater ease to nonsensical conversation, odd mannerisms and perhaps even some body fluids. Most people find a way to be tolerant toward children for these reasons (besides the fact that they are view as kind of a necessity).

The caretaker guy goes on to explain that it's OK not to know what to do, but I guess the onus is on larger society to be willing to deal with them better than what we have done in the past. And, our discomfort should pass with more exposure to these situations. What's your news? Well, the good news is that you still don't have to actually clean up puke anytime soon.

Eric Little said...

I have a cousin who is retarded; her body is small and childlike, her speech difficult to understand, but eventually comprehensible. I remember in my youth (1950's) hearing that families with a retarded child were advised to put the child away, since such people did not live beyond their 20's anyway.

The reason they didn't live beyond their 20's is because they were shut up, sequestered, hidden. Their isolation killed them.

My cousin lived with my aunt and uncle, moved into a group home, and now, I think, lives with her brother and his family. She is about my age, and she is still alive.

Adam Thornton said...

All good points. Certainly, isolating the mentally/physically handicapped does not teach us (or them) how to relate to each other. Though there seem to be people who can just naturally get along, though I bet those people have a lot of experience with children.

Yes, by the end I felt that some of the documentary seemed a bit exploitative. When they put the non-verbal, totally spastic man by the subway entrance with no sign or camera visible, I didn't get the point.

But when they sent the gibberish guy ("Ahh-by! Ah-boy'en boy ahh-by! Ahh-by'en boy-ya by!") to book the hotel room it made perfect sense, because he was a guy who COULD communicate even when thrown into a new situation: he could write and get his ID out of his wallet.

I did like the DVD a lot. Watching the woman dancing with the guy in the wheelchair on Venice Beach was quite a moment. I also loved the interview with the exceptionally pretty Las Vegas dancer, where she kept trying to help him but he was so obviously struck dumb by her.

I've got to say that the two characters I DIDN'T like were also the highest functioning: the woman (who parroted news cliches) and the guy obsessed with soap operas. The others seemed to have avoided getting snared by most of society's nastiness, just by virtue of being exluded from culture. But the woman and the soap opera guy had just enough integration to embrace and sort of understand media, to their detriment, I thought.

Adam Thornton said...

We've come a long way from the "lock them in the attic" days, I'm sure...and I think the key is having the resources to keep group homes in business. A few stores here in Waterloo seem to have a handicapped-placement program, often hiring adults with Downs Syndrome to do tasks like clean tables, do dishes, etc. Which is probably good all around.

One of my parent's friends worked in a private, long-term care facility near Woodstock (Ontario), and she made me realize that there are STILL people who are essentially "locked in the closet," people you never see, often because they're exceptionally difficult to handle and/or very much deformed. She had incredible stories...