This blog is on topics of interest to early career professionals who work with people with disabilities. Blog contributors have diverse perspectives on leadership, professional development, and success in changing systems to better serve people with disabilities and their families. For more information on Early Career Professionals, check out the website: www.aucd.org/ecp

18 May, 2010

Working with Integrity

Early in my own career, I didn’t know what I wanted to do; I just knew I wanted to help people. I went to college for a year to study social work, and quickly realized I didn’t have the patience for that line of work. Without knowing what else I wanted to study, I quit college and went to work – and that job happened to be working as a direct care staff in an institution for people with very significant developmental disabilities. It paid better than McDonald’s, which did actually factor into my decision-making process, I’m sorry to admit.

I went into that job knowing very little about the field – my only previous experience with disabilities was in high school, playing with the cute kids in the after-school program with the local early intervention provider. The folks living in the institution weren’t so cute…but I stayed there for four years and absolutely fell in love with the folks living there. I will never forget Myra, who was unable to speak or eat or walk or use any of her extremities, whose body was permanently contorted into positions I didn’t know possible, who was terribly physically uncomfortable at all times no matter what we tried…but whose smile and laughter was absolutely infectious. I worked with Myra for a year before fully realizing that she laughed at the same things I laughed at, and often before I even noticed what was funny…and that was mirrored with every emotion one might experience at home or at work (her home, my work)…and then it dawned on me that she got it. She really got it! Myra understood everything that was going on around her, and expressed it to anyone who bothered to pay attention. She was making the very best out of every moment, every day, every interminable year she was stuck in that institution.

Since that a-ha moment, I’ve spent 20 years supporting people with disabilities – in that institution and subsequent group homes, as an early intervention teacher, as a family therapist for families whose young children were first diagnosed with significant disabilities, as a residential service provider, and as a service coordination program administrator. Now here I am at AUCD, providing technical assistance to a network of Centers that I wish I had been aware of back when I first started college, so I could have taken advantage of all that such a Center offered an early career professional. It’s as if I’m closing a circle.

I encourage you to follow your passion, to pay close attention to the lessons learned along the way, and to attend to the serendipitous moments in your career. Most of all, stick to your principles. In this field of disability service providers, practitioners, researchers, scholars, policy experts, politicians, and so on, there is one tie that binds all of us – and that is our belief that all people have ability, and should be supported in making the most of that ability. This is clear in every discussion on education, employment, housing, health care, and the list goes on. Regardless of the career you choose…or the career that chooses you…or how many career changes you make along the way…keep these principles in the forefront. You’ll be working with integrity, regardless of where you end up. Myra was the first of many people to teach me this lesson; I hope you enjoy your lessons along the way as well.

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