Sunday, 14 August 2011

"Letting" People Be Who They Are

I'm going to talk about intellectual disabilities today, but I’m going to talk about one of my favourite movies: “Little Miss Sunshine”. If you’ve never seen it, intend on seeing it, and don’t want the experience to be totally spoiled for you, you’d best skip today’s entry.

The Hoover Family's Story

“Little Miss Sunshine” is the  story of the Hoover family’s quest to get 7-year-old Olive across the country in their van to the Little Miss Sunshine Beauty Contest. Olive is desperate to win. Not only is it her dream to be a beauty queen, but she wants to please her father, who is consumed with dividing the world into “winners” and “losers”. She also wants to please her grandfather, who choreographed the routine that she’ll perform for the talent portion of the competition and spent many hours practicing it with her.

The men of the family (Dad, the suicidal uncle, the older brother who’s only just recently broken a vow silence that lasted nearly a year) have never seen a child beauty pageant, and are disgusted by what they see in the talent competition before Olive is due to come onstage. They go to the dressing rooms and try to convince Mom that everyone is going to laugh at dumpy Olive, with her waist-length ponytail and her big glasses, and that it’s her job to protect her and stop her from going on.

Mom says, “We can’t take this away from her now. We have to let Olive be Olive.”

"Letting" People Be Who They Are

One day, while watching the movie, those words really stuck with me. They stuck with me all through the scene where Olive goes onstage and, to the family’s horror, they discover that the routine that Olive and Grandpa have worked on in secret for so long is a striptease to “Superfreak”. They stuck with me when Dad leads the family, among boos from the audience, in standing and clapping along with the music in support of Olive, who is having the time of her life onstage, totally oblivious to the fact that pageant officials are madly trying to get her off the stage.

It doesn’t seem quite right to compare Olive to the people with intellectual disabilities that I’ve supported, as she’s a child and I’ve mainly worked with adults. However, like Olive, they’re not always aware when they’re stepping outside the bounds of what is socially appropriate in a given situation, and sometimes they need coaching around that.

But watching the movie that day, I asked myself, who would I have been, if Olive had been an adult with intellectual disabilities with whom I was working? Someone standing up clapping, to let her know that I supported an unconventional decision? Or someone working with pageant officials to get her off the stage?

Do I let people be who they are, or do I coach that out of them in the name of making life “nicer” or “easier” for them or the people around them?

Asking Myself Tough Questions

I don’t think that I do. I may suggest things to think about if I see someone that I support going down a path that I’m relatively sure is going to take them further away from their goals, and I'm concerned that he or she doesn't understand the potential consequences of his or her actions. I out-and-out say, “That’s breaking the rules; if you keep doing it, you’re going to get in trouble,” if I see that happening. But I suspect that people would say, if anything, that I probably don’t put *enough* emphasis on considering what outcome a chosen course of action may have on others when I speak with people with intellectual disabilities that I support about it. I can see why they’d say this, but I don’t advise people the way I do because I believe that people with any sort of disability should deliberately hurt others in the name of self-determination. I just believe that people with disabilities have the right to self-determination, and that sometimes people in their lives get hurt or angry (often just out of worry) when they insist on it.

Finding The Balance

It seems to be another area where a balance in the way we (as family, friends or workers) offer support is essential. When does protecting an adult with intellectual disabilities or trying to coach them about social appropriateness become repressing who they are and what they’ll get out of growth opportunities? And while some boundaries or appropriateness are obvious…some aren’t. Who are we to decide them for other people? Or to decide that it’s better that people not learn from mistakes?

When do you let a person with intellectual disabilities “be who they are” and when do you try to “fix” who they are? Ideally, I’d say that we never try to “fix”, unless the person has asked for help with changing something.

But I know it’s not that black and white.

Is anything ever black and white?

I will probably write more about this.

For more information on "Little Miss Sunshine":

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