The Importance of Being Needed
Individuals who exhibit challenging behaviors often develop identities as “problem people.” They are segregated into “special” programs where they are treated as people who do not have anything to offer. Soon their “treatment” becomes a kind of cage to protect them from themselves and others. The real danger is that if enough people begin to think of the person as a “problem,” as someone who does not belong, he or she will believe it too.
It is deeply important to humans to both give and receive. Each of us has strengths and capacities, each of us has weaknesses and empty places that need to be filled. What is empty for one of us can be filled by what is abundant for another. When we give, when we make a contribution, we feel vital and a part of the community. When others see us as “takers” with nothing to offer, we may develop low self-esteem.
Being viewed as a competent person means be able to do things that are needed and valued by the culture. People who challenge us are often not given opportunities to learn skills that others need and value. Their days are often spent doing (and un-doing) tasks that no one cares about finishing. A fundamental point is that the skill should help the person to achieve a better life. If the skill can be taught but it does not enhance the person’s lifestyle, it should be abandoned.
Many individuals are insulted by the way they are treated because of their disability. They hear the terms “retarded” or “autistic” or “handicapped” and feel put down. It is as if these labels come first, robbing them of their individuality — being labeled means not being a real person. Listen for the way people talk about the individual. Is their language respectful? Do they talk about the person as if she wasn’t there? How would you feel if people talked about you in the same kinds of ways?
It is critical that a person’s skills and capacities be identified and promoted. This does not mean that his/her challenging behaviors, which may have been hurtful in the past, should be forgotten. But it does mean working very deliberately to overcome the belief that the person does not have anything worthwhile to share. It takes time and determination to help the person, and others, to see strengths and capacities where weaknesses and deficits were all that were seen before. It is difficult to be someone who makes a contribution when everyone expects you to be a “problem.” Finding capacities in people is a critical step in helping people to change. Ask, “How can we enhance the person’s reputation and increase the number of valued ways that he or she contributes to the community?”
Draw a circle one mile in radius around the person’s house. Chances are good that there are dozens of people who are doing good things for others each and every day within that circle. Make a point of showing up in those places to help people with their important work.
You can also help the person to remember his/her relationships by making a list of important birthdays, anniversaries, etc. with cards, gifts, etc.