We enjoyed this radio documentary very much, and hope you’ll listen, too. Learn more about Jane and how the piece came to life below.
For years, I drove by Misericordia, a Chicago campus for over 600 adults with intellectual and often physical disabilities. I promised myself that some day I would volunteer. That time arrived over four years ago. I attended a workshop for new volunteers and was then assigned to work in the Computer Room—not because of my technical skills but because of my background as an English teacher and the secondary focus in the room on writing and reading comprehension.
I began my volunteering with some trepidation. I’d never worked with people with Down syndrome or other disabilities. What would it be like? Would I be comfortable with people different from me? Would they appreciate my contribution or just see me as one more volunteer? How would I react to the physical symptoms like stuttering, drooling, or an uneven gait? Would I be patient when words failed some of the residents?
I worked hard to develop a personal connection with every person in the group. One person with Down syndrome loved to ask me about my family. Another resident was stuck on computer games, particularly “Wheel of Fortune.” I became his partner, and we played the game with gusto. Another resident enjoyed sports and played on several of Misericordia’s teams. I made sure to comment on the gold medals he proudly wore around his neck after each game or playoff series.
It didn’t take long for the residents to fall for me and me for them. Each week, I was greeted with shouts of “We love you,” “Here’s Jane,” “You look beautiful today, just like a movie star!” Who can resist such unconditional love and respect? Not me! And that respect goes both ways. I marvel at how these newfound friends take their disabilities in stride, how, in many cases, they aren’t even aware of their differences.
I never lose touch with these residents. When I’m lucky enough to spend two months each winter in Mexico, I skype once a week and often send photos of the people and activities in San Miguel de Allende.
What have I learned from these years of volunteer work? I’ve learned that folks with intellectual disabilities have the same interests, goals, and dreams as the public as a whole. They talk lovingly about their boyfriends and girlfriends, their families, and their friends. They strive to express their feelings, even when words fail them. Many work outside jobs and can’t wait to put their paycheck in the bank. They are passionate about everything from singing to movement to art.
And I have learned to park what often seem like personal problems at the door. How can I complain when these adults have overcome enormous challenges?
Over a year ago, I decided to write and produce a radio documentary that profiles three of the adults in “my” group, including two people with Down syndrome. I recorded interviews, talked to parents, discussed Down syndrome and other disabilities with experts. And I included my personal journey. The result is “What A Difference Differences Make,” an 18-minute piece that I hope will generate discussion and touch listeners’ hearts. The piece is available at this page www.janeleder.net. Any feedback or radio contacts are greatly appreciated.