For twenty years, I’ve lived a little over a mile from a state institution for people with developmental disabilities. I’ve driven past it hundreds of times and never known what it was.
Worse than that, I never thought to ask.
This is not the facility where I work: rather, I have the pleasure of spending my fellowship at the Association for the Developmental Disabled, or ADD. As a service provider for people with developmental disabilities living in the community, ADD functions in some similar, many dissimilar, ways to this government-run institution. I bring it up because this little gap in my knowledge actually signals a chasm.
My task at ADD is to lay the groundwork for the production of a video about the rights of individuals with developmental disabilities, but I realized that before coming to ADD, this was a whole group of people that I had never thought much about. Sure, I knew they existed, but—out of sight, out of mind—they’d all but disappeared. If you’d have asked me about the prevalent issues of individuals with developmental disabilities, I’d have furrowed my eyebrows and cleared my throat. If you’d have asked me what “human rights” really meant—and that’s really what we’re talking about when I say a “rights” video—I would have gone a little big eyed and mumbled something about children in Sudan.
Eye-opening, illuminating, enlightening—call it what you want. The point is that five weeks ago I didn’t think about this stuff. Now I can begin to have a conversation with you. Now I can graft your insights onto my experiences over the last five weeks of observing and interacting with individuals who have developmental disabilities as well as some of the people and groups that surround them.
But it’s not just that I’ve learned things specific to this field—and trust me, I’ve been trying to fill my brain with names and facts and assumptions, with acronyms and organizations and attitudes. I’ve also learned a lot about how I work and how an organization can work.
I’ve learned that I’m a more visual learner than I’d known. (I bought a whiteboard, I cut things up into little pieces and tape them onto construction paper, I draw pictures, I long for colored pens: all of these ridiculous things help me think.) I’ve learned that when I do research, I constantly, sometimes to my own detriment, search for reference points and stack questions upon questions until the foundations quiver. I’ve learned I need to make lists in the morning and I need to pay more attention to Outlook.
But outside my little office, the work processes get more interesting, more complicated. I get to see from the point of view of an outsider—or really, a recently initiated insider—how a mission on paper plays out in the conference room, how the different parts of an organization interact and affect each other, how managers address their employees, how decisions get made, how shifts and changes in an organization happen.
At the risk of irreverence, let me just say that it’s pretty sweet.
Now that I understand—if only a little better—the field into which I’ve stepped, I look forward to continued progress on this video and to all of the things I know I’ll learn in the coming weeks, all of the new awareness that such an experience adds.
Anne – the Association for the Developmentally Disabled