Accommodate or Segregate?

We’re putting on a musical about breaking down the wall of segregation in a theater fully-equipped to welcome any patron. We have accessible elevators and ramps, places to “park” wheelchairs, special hearing devices for those who need them. We even had volunteers sign on stage in one production last winter. The irony is that backstage some people were whining about “those in wheelchairs” or “those old folks” who “were really slow to get to their seats.”

My grandmother is in relatively good health for her age, but she doesn’t move as swiftly as an 18-year-old these days. She tries to make sure she sets aside extra time if she were to go to a show. She doesn’t want to hold anyone up. When I was working at a facility, we used to bring residents in a wheelchair to an activity first for the same reason, even though it meant they had to wait patiently for a much longer time. I am not saying that there aren’t people who choose to “abuse” the “privilege” that comes with their health limitations but there are also many others out there who don’t.

While we may be thinking that our society is being very “accommodating” to those with “special needs,” we seem to have forgotten that a good number of these individuals are acutely aware of the “trouble” or inconvenience they may bring, to the extent that they’d rather give up certain opportunities. Convincing my grandmother to go to a show or travel with me was at times more challenging than participation in the event itself. More often than not, individuals with health limitations are the ones who are the most “accommodating.” After all, it is expected of them; they don’t get credit for being “considerate.”

When I was a child, people in a wheelchair or with physical limitations were hardly visible in the “real world,” let alone being in a theater. Times have changed, or so I thought….

Some theaters have special shows for certain “vulnerable groups.” Logistically, it may be easier to bring in all the physically and mentally “challenged” patrons at the same time. In practice, this seems to further encourage segregation. It clearly took more than striking down the “Colored” bathrooms to bring people of different skin colors together. It will take more than just the infrastructure to break the barriers created by physical or mental disabilities. Years of research suggests that actual social contact that involves working towards a common goal may be the most effective. One of the very few things I liked about my elementary school education was how students with special needs were “mainstreamed” into “regular” classrooms. While this might not have been the best for us academically, it certainly had taught us something very important about “harmony in diversity.”

When I went to see “Peter Pan” last Fall, I was surrounded by a group of very noisy kids. In front of us were adults with some “behavioral challenges.” Some of them were fairly loud during the show, but not physically threatening. Not only did the actors and audience not seem to be bothered by it, they actually tried to embrace it as if it’s part of the show. Nobody was asked to leave. Nothing turned violent. It might have been a little “disruptive” at first but it worked out in the end. I reckon things don’t always end this perfectly. It was an uplifting experience no less.

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About C

If you consider volunteering at a luncheon for older adults as my first exposure to the field, I have been in geropsychology for at least twenty years. As family, friend, volunteer, trainee, and professional, I have found myself in adult day care centers, senior centers, senior living facilities, nursing homes, medical and psychiatric wards, hospice, and personal homes of older adults. Wherever I go, be it an orphanage, a museum, a prison, an airport, or a random corner in the neighborhood, issues related to aging and mental health often come to mind. I used to think that I could make a difference only if I became a top-notch researcher, educator, or clinician. As I continue to follow this meandering path, it dawns on me that as a nobody in the field, I can still add my light to the sum of light by sharing what I know. Over the years, I have "converted" a few very dedicated individuals to focus on aging-related work within their respective disciplines and encouraged a handful more to stay in this field despite its winding course. I believe by bringing aging and mental health issues to the foreground, we will amass a stronger force to promote advocacy, research, and quality care.
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