Have you ever known someone who was ahead of their time? Someone whose ideas seemed radical, unconventional and even impossible to their colleagues? I knew a man like this.
My father, Dr. H. Ellison Pusser, was a man with radical ideas about people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. At a time when people with these kinds of disabilities were living in developmental centers and large “habilitative communities” my dad believed they should be recognized as valued members of society with individual personalities, potential, desires and dreams. Even though it often put him at odds with administrators my dad talked about a different way to support people. He never called it anything special, to him it was just the truth.
When I was in middle school my siblings and I picked on each other a lot. Dad got especially angry if we used the word “retarded” disparagingly. True to form, he came up with a creative way to teach us a lesson. He made a rule that if we were caught saying “retarded” to make fun of someone we had to volunteer one hour at the large developmental center where he worked as a psychologist.
I was the first one to test him and racked up three hours of mandatory volunteer time in one weekend. When dad took me to the center, I was scared. The grounds were vast. The buildings were big, outdated and intimidating. Inside everything looked stark and sterile. It wasn’t comfortable or colorful and had the lingering odor of urine and antiseptic. Some people roamed the halls and some were confined to padded chairs or hospital beds.
My father checked me in at the front desk as a visitor and told the staff I was there to volunteer with “Mark”. Then he turned and went to his office. I was led to a large room with six hospital beds divided by curtains. A young black man was being helped into a wheelchair and the staff said, “Well this is Mark. You can tie his shoes and take him for a walk.” With that, I was left alone with Mark. I had no idea what to do so I introduced myself, tied his shoes, and asked him where he wanted to go. Mark smiled and pointed outside.
We walked around the campus and paved trails. Mark let me know where he wanted to go by pointing and saying, “There”. A few times we stopped to look at birds, trees, a pond and the mountains. I asked Mark questions and he answered with one or two words. Mark played little tricks on me. He locked his brakes when I wasn’t looking and when I struggled to push him or bent down to see what was wrong, Mark would laugh and laugh. On our walk he directed me to a little house and motioned for me to knock on the door. When a woman answered the door with a surprised look on her face and asked who we were I looked at Mark who was gleefully laughing. The time I spent with Mark went by quickly and soon it was time to go. Mark grabbed my hand and said, “Don’t leave me.” I felt a lump in my throat and promised to come back and visit him.
On the ride home, my dad asked me what I learned about Mark. I told him that Mark liked joking around and playing tricks on me. My dad said he thought a sense of humor was an indicator of real intelligence. He said Mark’s body had limitations caused by Cerebral Palsy but his mind and his spirit weren’t limited. I didn’t totally understand what my dad meant but I never forgot it. He helped me see Mark, not as a person with a disability but as a smart and funny guy who had a lot more going on than most people recognized.
I didn’t realize then that my father was influencing how I would think about my students when I taught school and the people I supported when I became an ISC. It was easy for me to talk to people and learn about them without preconceived ideas about their “capabilities”. I listened and tried to incorporate what was important to them into lesson plans, IEPs and support plans. If my dad were alive today I know he’d be right at home with Person Centered Practices and would be thrilled about the work going on in states and countries around the world. I would tell him that he is one of the reasons Person Centered Thinking makes so much sense to me.
We all know people like this. They laid the groundwork for concepts that are now widely accepted as best practice and are being shared with self advocates, families and supporters everywhere. I am grateful for them and feel privileged to have a small role in sharing Person Centered Practices, an idea whose time has finally come.