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Did you ever have an experience where someone chooses to say something that you find offensive? What if you were the only person in the room who was offended? It happens to me all the time, and is usually related to some disability-related comment or attitude about what it would be like to have some additional challenge in life. I know the person making the comment doesn’t mean any harm to me personally, but I believe these instances of ableism are examples of how far we still need to go in terms of reaching true equality in society.
For the most part, ableism brings forth different meanings depending on who you ask to define it. A person with a disability will readily be able to give examples of times when they were discriminated against because of their disability. On the other hand, if you ask their parent to give an example, they might have other instances to share that are bigger than what the person with a disability mentions because the person who experiences the hurtful prejudice may find that it’s rarely one occurrence but rather, the sum of many over time that leave the lasting memory.
Even more disparate might be the understanding of ableism by your average American. They might totally blow off that there is pervasive discrimination against people with disabilities or worse, they might not care because they value the lives of able-bodied people more.
There was one summer not too long ago when I was too old for camps and too young to be working for money. I think my mom got the idea from someone she sort of knew that there was this place in Vancouver where I could volunteer twice a week. It was a secondhand store sort of like Goodwill, but way shabbier. The proceeds went to the local animal shelter. There were about two or three employees – the rest were volunteers. I did have an interview, and the volunteer coordinator who led it was never seen again. I couldn’t get a sense of who worked there regularly – there always seemed to be someone new.
I think I spent a total of 30 hours that summer having a blast at ReTails. My position entailed straightening all the videotapes and making sure that the clothes were hanging in the right direction and weren’t falling off the hanger. This was my dream organizer job! I used to get in trouble at the library for organizing the videos according to how *I* thought they should be organized. At ReTails, I was in charge of them, and I can tell you, they were where they were supposed to be.
Hanging clothes was also a lot of sensory fun because the hangers were similar, and they looked so orderly all lined up. I had someone supporting me (sort of like a job coach) who would answer questions from customers who tended to be a little weird and eccentric. He would interface with the rude people who were just unhappy in general.
I think what I took away from this opportunity was an appreciation for the people who keep stores looking so organized and pretty. Most of them go unnoticed, but boy, do you notice when their work is not performed. It gave me a respect for work that is essential but underappreciated. It also taught me about myself and the need to play to my strengths instead of what someone said I should be doing. There is dignity in a job well done, even if it is organizing shelves.
My experience at ReTails showed me that I needed to find a job that let me put my autistic gifts to work. I know I need to cut back on my organizing at school and wait until my shift at Trader Joe’s to straighten things. I believe this is going to be the new normal for me as I get older: to find jobs to let me be my authentic self.
My favorite teacher was the person who taught me how to letterboard, Elizabeth Vosseller.* She is a speech pathologist who led a training in Seattle in 2013. She changed my life, as you can imagine! She was the first person who treated me like I was intelligent and capable of learning. Within ten minutes of working with her, I understood what she wanted me to do, and I was so excited to finally – FINALLY – be able to communicate that I would have done it all standing on one foot if she had asked me to.
Never underestimate the power a teacher’s determination can have on changing a person’s life! Reaching for new horizons is something we can all benefit from.
(* of Growing Kids Therapy Center in Herndon, VA)
Right now, I like how I spend my free time. I come home from work or school, and after I go through my routine of putting away my lunch items, I go upstairs and cut paper. It’s the most relaxing activity I can think of. No one makes me stop or try something else. I might want to try something else some day, and hopefully I will get support for it should I need it. I feel lucky that I have a pretty busy life right now, and have little down time. Keeping myself busy with activities that feed different parts of my life it’s so important. School and work and the gym each feed a different need my brain and come together to make me feel complete. The only thing missing is a girlfriend.
I used to have such a problem making eye contact. I think it’s because I would be listening with such intensity that I had to focus my gaze at a point in the distance. It’s like with the words, I couldn’t have the intensity of the eye contact too. I’ve gotten so much better at looking at people’s faces that now I can maintain a gaze for several seconds. I have to admit that it’s incredibly intimate to look at someone’s face for so long and not be intimidated or creeped out. Why? Because I think that one’s eyes truly are the mirror to their soul.