MENTALLY RETARDED: WHO ARE THEY?
By Anne Rose-Pierce
I am writing to express
my disquiet over the scheduled executions of many disabled
defendants. I have worked in both residential and vocational
settings providing services for adults with disabilities for the
last thirteen years. I worked at Por City Development Center for
almost 10 years, starting as a Production Supervisor, and
advancing to Program Manager. During that time I also worked for
two years at a Saturday respite center for children and adults
with disabilities who lived with their families, and another
three years as the weekend staff at a group home for 5 adult
males. I have worked with people whose degree of retardation
varied from profound to mild.
Disabled adults have personalities, interests and lifestyles as varied as any other segment of the population. They also have the ability to learn, but in my experience, their learning process is slower than the average adult. Tasks often have to be broken down into very small steps, and repeated many times in order for our clients to master them. I have also noticed that the concepts most adults have been to internalize from our own experiences, what we read, and what we see around us, must be taught to adults with disabilities in the same way physical tasks are taught. They often accept what they see on the surface, and think in absolutes. I will provide examples from my experiences as a professional in the field to illustrate the way people with mental retardation learn.
First, I would like to discuss I.Q. An average I.Q. score is 100. A score above 130 is considered genius, while a person with a score below 70 is classified retarded. 30 points below average, is all it takes to be disabled. Johnny Paul Penry's I.Q. is another 20 points below that. He is not slow, backwoods, or uneducated, he is retarded. His learning process is very similar to the people whose stories I am going to share with you.
My mother became terminally ill my first year at Port City. I was on the work floor when my father called to tell I needed to come home immediately. One of the clients, Mr A. noticed that I was crying when I hung up the phone. He came over to me and asked what was wrong. I told him, and he said that he would pray for her. I returned to work about a week after my mother died. Mr A. came up to me at morning break and asked how my mother was. I told him that she has died, and he blurted out, "But, I prayed for her!" I explained the best I could that God does not always answer our prayers in the way we think he will.
I had been at Port City about 5 years, when one of our clients died suddently, in her sleep. We held a group meeting to let her co-workers know about her death. Several clients commented on things they remembered about her, or how much they missed her. It was nearly time to go home, so we announced that there was time for one more person to speak. Mr B. raised his hands, and said, "We'll be getting a new client for Port City pretty soon then, won't we?" In a world where the waiting list for services is hundreds of people long, the loss of one client means nothing more than that someone new will replace them.
Mr C's parents had taught him to dress neatly, so that he looked like a young man who worked in a print shop or similiar casual office setting. He was able to ride our city busses independently, and hold rational if short conversations. That combined with his appearance made him appear to be in the "high-functioning" range, if no normal. Just how great an illusion that was became very clear one day during lunch break. He and his girlfriend were talking about their future. He said that they were going to live on a ranch, and raise "french fries" and "waterlogs".
Miss D. expected nothing lesss than perfection in her work. She reacted poorly when staff pointed out any mistakes that she might make. Her reactions varied from a yell that was loud and wordless, to self-abuse. Several staff had spent extra time with her, trying to help her understand that it was OK to make mistakes. We would explain that everyone messes up at times, that people learned from their errors, that what counted at Port City was our workers willingness to fix their mistakes and so on. None of our conversations with her seemed to help lessen her self-reproach over her errors. I finally decided to try something a little more concrete. As Program Manager, it was my responsability to keep progress notes on our clients. Each one had a chart that I wrote in. Of I wrote something incorrectly, I could not erase, I had to draw one line through it, re-write it, and initial that line. I began calling Miss D. into my office each time I made a mistake, and showing it to her. She did not seem to beleive that I had really made a mistake the first time I tried it, but I kept showing her the page until she said, "Anne made a mistake." She would mention it again whenever she saw me at break or lunch, and it looked as if she was getting the idea. She also seemed to enjoy the extra attention, and her reactions to her own mistakes became much less severe within a few months.
Mr E. walked in my office one day, flopped down in my guest chair, and burst out, "My mother doesn't listen to me". I responded, "Nobody's mother listens to them", then asked if there was something specific that was bothering him. He told me that his mom had expressed her disapproval of him going out with his friends to play pool and have a beer (which he did on an average of once a month). He expressed some anger toward his mom, but his conversation also reflected a great deal of caring toward her. When he seemed to have fully expressed his frustration I asked, "You love your mother, don't you?". Mr E. nodded his head and began crying at that point. I explained to him that most Mom's treat their adult children like babies all their lives. I told him that was natural, and that as adults we learned to accept it. I pointed out that Mom's often don't like the things their adult children do. I told him that as we mature, we begin making our own choices. At first, we often hide them from our mothers, to avoid hassles. Eventually, we are able to say, "Mom, I love you, but I'm going to take this job, (have this friend, rent this apartment, etc.) because it is the right thing for me to do." We talked for at least thirty minutes, and I realized that up until that day, Mr E. thought his mom's attitude toward him was a product of his retardation, he had not realized that other mom's treated their adult sons similary.
Mr F. was brought to my office by his station supervisor because he was sitting at his work table, holding up his middle finger which was upsetting the folks working around him. When I asked him what was wrong, he expressed discontent with his life. "I'm just not happy", he concluded.
"Ever?" I asked.
"Not all the time", he told me.
"No one is happy all the time." He didn't look convinced, so I asked, "Do you think I'm happy all the time?"
"Oh yes", he answered.
I reminded him of times that he had seen me both sad and angry. I talked about the fact that everyone has problems, worries etc. I talked about specific things that I was dissatisfiedwith in my life, until I was sure that he understood that I had many of the same emotions he did. We also discussed the idea that the emotions a person feels are not wrong, but that their response to their own emotions might be. I told him that it was OK that he felt angry, or unhappy, but that it wasn't fair for him to act in such a way that he could cause others to be hurt and/or angry. Specifically, when he sat in his work station holding up his middle finger, he caused several of his co-workers to become upset. We finally agreed that when he felt the need to "flip" something or someone off, he would go to the restroom and make that gesture to the paper towell holder. The serenity of the work station was not disrupted, and he was able to relieve some of his pent up emotions. He did not always implement this program on his own, but did respond to staff reminders to take that behavior off the workfloor.
Miss G. came to Port City from an activity center that focused more on activities than work skills. She was in her forties, her speech was difficult to understand, and she cried easily. It did not appear that she had ever earned money for work, and she did not carry money to work. Her home sent money to the office so that she could go on lunch outings occasionnally. At Port City we believe that everyone can work, and so we set Miss G. up on one of our easiest job tasks. The job was packaging small replacement parts for the chains used on chain saws. Depending on the size, they were packaged in lots of eight, nine or ten. Only a handful of our workers could count accurately, so we used pieces of plywood with the requisite number of squares drawn on them to get the correct number of parts in their bags. If a worker put one part in each square, then put them all into the plastic bag, they would have done the job correctly. Staff showed Miss G. how to do the job several times, then sat with her while she began to work. She did not seem to understand the concept of putting one part in each square. At first, she tried to cover the entire piece of plywood with parts. After several hours of intensive one on one training by several different staff people, she began just putting the parts within the squares on the plywood. Each square would be pretty full of the little chain saw parts, but they wereall within the squares. Staff modeled the job for her over and over again, then one of us would stand beside her giving verbal cues. Miss G. was finally able to get it down to 4-5 parts in each square. She just could not seem to understand the idea of one part/square. This was our most basic job, and I was unwilling to give up on Miss G. being able to earn some money of her own. I was sure that she could get it. I looked around for something for her to use to count parts that might seem finished to her with just one part in it. I finally found some two by three inch plastic boxes that we sometimes used for counting things that would not lay still on the plywood jigs. Staff took turns sitting by Miss G. We set out nine plastic boxes, and handed her the tub of parts. As soon as she put the part in a box, we closed the lid (the only way we could prevent her adding another part to the box). When she had put a part in each box, we would take away her tubof parts and add them to the bag too. As she finished each bag, we took it away from the work area, so that she couldn't add any parts to it later. In this way, she was able to package the correct number of parts in each of her bags, and began to earn a very small pay check. Over the next several months, Miss G. began to grasp the concept, one to a box, and was ultimately able to do the job using a flat plywood counting jig. She could produce a lot more work that way, and was pleased when her pay checks began to grow. Over the years she learned to do several of our other jobs, and would call attention to each new job task she mastered.
People with mental retardation learn at their own pace, and often in their own way. I doubt that Johnny Paul Penry was ever given any kind of structured teaching about the ways to treat other human beings, or live in society. He was physically abused by his family, and sexually abused by staff in the instructions he was sent to for protection. He was shown by both family and unprofessional staff members, that people hurt each other. He also learned from some of his caregivers, that you take what you want. He does not seem to have had any other teachers. We failed to keep him safe, we failed to provide him with models that could teach him appropriate behavior. He is currently under a death sentence: are we going to kill him because we failed him?
...after seventeen years...
3225 SE Alder Ct. #1
Portland, Oregon, 97214
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