I taught my father to use a cell phone last year. He’s eighty-seven. He grew up with an outdoor privy, listening to the Lone Ranger and Green Hornet on the radio, and walked ten miles through the snow to school each day (I was never sure that part wasn’t exaggerated). Telephones back then were black and attached to the wall. Now he has a phone with a “screen” and multi-functions. He wanted to know how the time on the phone could always be exactly correct and how that lady who answered my cell phone occasionally knew that I wasn’t available. His learning curve was steep, but he’s doing well with it now. He’s also learned to cook, clean, and do the grocery shopping, all chores that were exclusively performed by my mother. She is no longer able to do these things, and he has filled in the gap in their lives. Apparently, we don’t stop learning when we turn twenty-one.
When children with developmental disabilities leave their federally mandated schooling at twenty-one, they usually have no real opportunity to continue their education or access learning opportunities. Often, it feels like some invisible switch is flipped, and all expectations that individuals will learn something new or improve upon their current abilities cease. But none of us stop learning just because of our age. We do stop learning when we ourselves, or others, have no interest or expectations for change. When you’re dependent on others to facilitate your learning, and those people give up on you, your personal possibilities are unrealized.
I have expectations for Lauren. I am hopeful that Lauren will one day develop at least some minimal ability to communicate using pictures. I know that someday she’ll figure out that she can hold more that Mr. Turtles’s yellow string in those long thin fingers. I believe that the extent of her inabilities is in direct proportion to the extent of our own inadequacies to help her. Is it always easy to “keep the faith”? No, but last week Lauren taught me something. “Don’t doubt me, Mom.”
In an effort to find something new to amuse her, I put an audiobook version of Little Women on her mp3. It’s kind of a long book with many characters, which takes place around the time of the Civil War. She wouldn’t be able to follow the plot, but maybe the cadence of someone reading to her would be a nice change from the music to which she usually listens. And, she did seem to be enjoying it. She sat quietly content as the lives of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy played out. Suddenly, she got very vocal, a complaining tone calling me closer. Was she tired of it? Did the battery run low? I walked over and checked the mp3. The problem was that the book had ended. She was actually following the plot. She was telling me that chapter one had started all over again. “Been there, done that, Mom.” She needed a new book, a new story, a new opportunity to expand the narrow walls that confine her life.