People need people. Everyone does. Even people who can barely communicate, children who appear to be uninterested in social interaction, and folks who find large groups overwhelming. Young or old, people with communication or developmental differences need community at least as much as “normal” people do. How and where to find and make that community are the challenge. We don’t bowl alone, my son and I.
Recreating What Used to Be Real
We find and make communities, especially when there are special needs. Modern life is about consumption: more housing, individual apartments, cars, travel, phones that go with us… Neighborhoods don’t function as communities once did. My favorite book that I’ve never owned and returned to the library without finishing, Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, was published in full-length just before my husband was killed (along with 2,995 others).
The whole world seemed to come together over the incident, and then drifted and broke up again.
Community was very tangible when my slightly older husband grew up than it was even for me. People rubbed elbows a lot more. He remembered party-phone lines (shared among several families) and shared cars and bedrooms. His family wasn’t poor, but they used the laundromat. My late husband had a rough start socially as a young child, but family, community, school, and education came together for him, and as an adult he had terrific friends.
Our son’s 18 now, and he bowls with a motley group of children and adults with developmental disabilities most Saturdays. His lane has bumpers up, no gutters. If they’d done that at my local bowling alley, I might’ve returned from my first experience of bowling 16 versus a perfect 300 on a class trip. (The alley’s owner’s daughter was in my class, and her friends bowled near a hundred!) The Wichita Examiner provided photos of a similar league that’s signing up special needs kids this month. http://www.examiner.com/slideshow/heroes-can-be-small-bowling-league
What gives my son the greatest sense of belonging, though, is being on special needs sports teams, wearing a uniform, and having a coach. (I never was on a team for any sports, or for that matter, for math or debating; for me “the play’s the thing.”) His first experience was “Challenger Baseball,” a traveling little league of sponsored teams of children who play with peer “volunteers” who could run the bases with them. He stared daily at the team photo from that first glorious season. It remained on our fridge for years till another one was good enough to replace it.
Joining the Circle
A Friendship Circle sports league he joined the year before gave him his first time in a gym that wasn’t part of the regular school day. He had to work up the courage to enter the basketball court filled with activity and strangers, stay, and play basketball. It took the 6 weeks of that program to get him to the point that he’d stay for the whole 45 minutes. By the end, he would play catch with a typical volunteer, run in the line around the gym, and take turns at the basket.
The volunteers who’ve worked with my son over the years have been “doing community service.” It chokes me up that my son’s a recipient of charity when they’re together with him, but both children have a great time. The children who come to our home become more like what I remember friends being. I facilitate what are really play dates (games to play, how to communicate with each other, what to try next) since my son doesn’t know how to direct people in his home. Even an hour in a week is enough to be meaningful to him, and apparently to his typical peer friend.
The volunteers’ experiences give me hope that my son will continue to be part of a community as an adult. Our Federal government recently decided that developmentally disabled adults should compete for jobs, not be permitted to gather in sheltered centers during the day, or live in “segregated” groups. Adults with developmental disabilities, including those with the most severe medical issues, are encouraged to be “part of the community.” No support will be provided otherwise. The problem is probably clearer to you now. Our communities are atomic already.
Adults with developmental disabilities often can’t get themselves anywhere on their own. What town will offer our developmentally or cognitively challenged adults baseball field time, with volunteers? What businesses will fund uniforms, for adults with developmental disabilities who want something to belong to and participate in?
Is the creativity of the community magically going to be unleashed and create viable organizations? I know a few genuine believers in radically defunding support systems who believe that community will flower. If all of these people will become volunteers, spend several hours a week with people who need companionship, then it will. I myself can do the work of one person.