A couple of decades ago I worked with “developmentally disabled” people, which had become the politically correct way to refer to retarded people. Retarded was the term used when I was young, and one of my sisters was retarded to the point of never learning to walk, talk, feed herself or anything else. My mother taught a class of retarded children for a couple of years, so I got some exposure that way too.

The occasion for my working with retarded people was the closing down of the institutions in which they had previously been housed. At one time the fashion had been to institutionalize everyone, then it became to get them out of institutions. I’m not really sure just how well that worked, though some anecdotes suggest it may have been better for a lot of the people.

For example, there were never enough supervisors to prevent the strong from stealing food from the weak at mealtime, according to one story. In another story, one retarded woman told a woman she was working with that she would lie on her legs. That refers to the custom in the institution of people holding down a person so another could have sex with them. Probably something that happened pretty constantly. So-called normal people often like to look down on retarded people, but they’re very human. It’s just that they’re not equipped to hide the warts as well as others.

One woman I worked with wasn’t really retarded. Her father liked to mess around, and eventually left her mother with a lot of children. He became a fairly prominent politician in the state. The mother, if I remember correctly, had a nervous breakdown, and the children were shipped from one family to another until they ran out of families. D and her twin sister were then put in an institution for the retarded. When they reached 18 her sister left. D, meanwhile, had gotten raped, and had developed behavior problems, as ought not to be too surprising. She stayed.

In fact, she really hadn’t wanted to leave. She had settled into a routine in the institution that she was comfortable with, involving lots of coffee and cigarettes, and had no interest in taking on adult responsibilities. She knew she could get away with things because of her status, and couldn’t see any rewards coming from changing her behavior.

She hadn’t had any schooling, so there were lots of things she didn’t know about. One of the workers there told me that she asked about buildings they passed in a town, whether they’d been there when the Indians had lived in the area or not. The sort of question that wouldn’t even occur to a person who was really retarded. Really retarded people, in my somewhat limited experience, don’t have much intellectual curiosity. In other respects they’re not so different from other people, though.

As I mentioned above, the strong are always able to pick on the weak, as is usually true among “normal” people. They want to be liked too, some of them desperately. One man always wore a shirt with breast pockets, and one of those pockets was always absolutely stuffed with pens because the important people at the institution always had pens in those pockets. On the other hand, he got hit by a car when crossing the road, and I think broke his arm, or something similar. Pain medicine was prescribed, and when I visited him I had to encourage him to take it. He didn’t want to. I couldn’t always understand what he was saying, but he had a very nice demeanor.  There was a restaurant where a lot of the people used to go, and one day someone started picking on him. Other customers in the restaurant made the perpetrator stop, which pleasantly surprised me.

D was pretty often a handful. She was self-centered, and always wanted attention, but that’s not surprising, the way she came up. At one point she was moved into a house with another graduate from the same institution who might have been about ten years younger. Too bad they didn’t like each other. They both liked music, but not the same kind, and the other woman was louder and much more interested in the opposite sex.

I knew that D didn’t like the other person, so I used to take the other for rides after supper–until D got jealous. She thought I preferred the other woman’s company. It took her aback when I explained what I was trying to do.

I don’t know if anything I did was of much help to her. She was in her forties when I met her, and wasn’t about to change anything. She may have gotten as far as considering change, but I guess it was too scary for her. She just continued along the way she was going.

The last time I saw her I was no longer working with her, and she came to visit me one day. Her voice had gotten huskier from smoking, and I doubt that she’s still alive. She was one of the people that fall through cracks in the system and never manage a very happy life except in a very limited way.


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