by Rebecca Amuso Wendell, Executive Director

“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” – Bryant H McGill

“I didn’t catch that can you please try again?’  “One more time, please don’t give up.”  “Thank you for being patient with me…”

These were a Riverbrook staff member’s responses during a conversation that I witnessed recently.  The woman who was speaking wasn’t able to do so clearly but what was clear is that she was becoming upset that her speech was not understood and she was ready to walk away unheard.  Certainly, it wouldn’t be for the first time.

This staff member was aware of how important it is for everyone to be heard particularly for an individual with unique needs.  As I watched, I thought how disheartening it must feel to regularly experience barriers to expressing important thoughts or needs.  How isolating it must feel not to be able to make a simple request, to make small talk with friends or to express something profound like love when it is felt.  My concern turned to pride as I watched this staff member persevere because once understood, a complete transformation unfolded in this woman’s demeanor.  She was visibly relieved and joyful.  She moved on to her next activity with a smile.  Such a complex thing for some- to simply be understood.

For many individuals with disabilities this issue is further complicated by an inability to communicate verbally.  How then can a “voice” be used and “heard” by others when words cannot be formed?  Are people with these types of disabilities destined to lead a life of misunderstandings?

The basis of functional assessment is that all behavior is a form of communication and all behavior serves a purpose.  Perhaps a person cannot verbally express that they are displeased with something but they can stomp their foot.  Perhaps they cannot say “I love you” but they can offer a piece of art that they created.  When this happens, are we listening and acknowledging these forms of communication?

It is well documented that adults with developmental disabilities experience more anxiety and depression than neurotypical adults.  If an individual cannot, in addition to many other struggles, enjoy the basic luxury of communication then it’s not hard to imagine why.

In our mission to empower women with developmental disabilities to lead enviable adult lives, staff at Riverbrook Residence are trained to start every conversation by first asking themselves:  “How does my communication partner “talk” to me? Am I asking the right questions the right way? Am I observing behavior with the intent to learn and am I sincerely interested knowing someone’s preferences?”

Threaded through Riverbrook’s culture are systems to ensure that all community members- residents, families, staff, and those who provide oversight are given the opportunity to weigh in and to be considered, as it is through this consideration that we experience respect and it is because of this respectful support that we ultimately achieve empowerment.

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