“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Things I learned but was never taught - Presence

I have been thinking a lot about presence. How the presence of persons with particularly severe disabilities changes those around them. Clearly social environments are not the same with or without a person with a severe disability in that environment. I suspect we choose to not have the environment that develops as a result of having the person with the severe disability in it based on the preponderance of environments that I have found myself in. But I also find that when I am in those environments with those people I learn things. It is not like coming to one of the classes that I teach where I discuss lessons from a particular reading, or try to teach my graduate students something. The learning comes from people who actually evidence little interest or understanding of the fact that they have the ability to be teachers to those around them. I have learned so much in those types of settings. But such learning is not at all unique to me.

It was Henri Nouwen who described Adam, a man with severe intellectual disabilities for whom he acted as a caretaker as "my friend, my teacher, my spiritual director, my counselor, my minister." You might read those words and dismiss them thinking, "What a nice thing to say about someone" particularly someone with a disability who has been devalued by most of society. "He is trying to bring dignity to someone who doesn't have any" you might think. But it is not a sweet thing to say about someone, it is the truth. If one submits oneself to such relationships and one is paying attention, there are so many things that are learned. As in the title of this posting, they are things learned which were never taught.

We learn things about society, we learn things about ourselves. We also learn things about the person with the disability if we give sufficient time to learn them. Once again it is about presence. Presence changes things, it reveals things. I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog about how the presence of a man beaten and left for dead revealed the character of those around him in the story of the Good Samaritan. It is that kind of learning.
"What will I be willing to do in such a situation?" I learn about myself.
"How will the enviornment change when people who have not been integrated experience full integration?" I learn about the social enviornment, be it the church or other social settings.
"Do I love my neighbor?" A challenging neighbor will reveal that to me.
"Do we as a church love our neighbor?" A challenging neighbor also reveals the heart of those in the larger environment.

Once again there is no effort typically on the part of the person with the disability to teach anybody anything. But the lesson is there and the possibility of learning is there.

Will we allow, no, will we facilitate the potential for this type of learning to occur?


Unknown said...

I agree with you Dr. McNair. I myself have experienced situations where I feel like I have learned things in the past from my students in the moderate/severe autism class. These feelings of learning something new come in such a natural way from being in the presence of my students. Before switching my career from early childhood teacher to moderate/severe teacher, I had the opportunity to meet Ethan. Ethan was a 3 year old who had down syndrome. When I met Ethan, I had no knowledge in the special ed field. Without him knowing, he taught me to view life differently. I saw how happy he was and how he always had a smile on his face even though he was limited when it came to walking or running. He showed no signs of being in pain or wanting to change the way he was. The more I was around him the happier my heart felt and the less I complained about my worries. Ethan had taught me something in such a natural way without him knowing, but just being present everyday he came to school. So like you stated, “ Once again there is no effort typically on the part of the person with the disability to teach anybody anything. But the lesson is there and the possibility of learning is there.” I believe that in order to facilitate the potential for this type of learning is to integrate people with disabilities in our communities and allow them to feel welcomed and be in our presence.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading this entry as it made some very valid and interesting points. When I first read the title, I thought this entry would be about the idea of "being present" in a given situation. However,in the beginning of this entry, the "presence" had more to do with being in the presence of those who have disabilities and what we can learn about ourselves in doing that. I believe that this is true when dealing with people in general. There is so much to learn from others if we ourselves are actually "present" in any given moment, observing more, listening more and reacting less. While I believe that every human being is a potential teacher, I also believe that those with disabilities have more to teach us about ourselves; as Dr. McNair mentioned in this article. Many times society doesn't give the time, opportunity, or respect to those with disabilities to be able to "teach" us something. Often times, our society seems to be in a fast-paced, short-attention span, and irritable frame of mind that we lose sight of our manners surrounding human decency. Once we consciously and diligently give our "presence" to the "presence" of those around us, is when we can really begin to be taught by those around us.