The beauty from within - don’t judge a book by its cover!

Jane Pfaff

18 June 2020 | 5 min read

The beauty from within - don’t judge a book by its cover!

How often do we make assumptions about people from just looking at them or allow other people's opinions to cloud our judgement?

This continues to happen throughout life - in our personal lives, work situations, with our parents, family and friends, at school as students or as parents, and of course the influence of the media and politics.

You may have experienced a new boss and being told by others that they are difficult and unfair and then finding out that in fact you get on really well, share similar values and find them a pleasure to work with. Can you relate to being an anxious parent standing in the playground at the beginning of a new school year waiting to see who your child gets as their year Two teacher? Hearing the name of the teacher that many have warned you about, and then, your child’s name is called out and you dread the coming year, only to find that your child really loves being in that teacher's class and thrives throughout the school year.

How many times, when asked what sort of work you do and you say that you work with people with a disability, do you get the response ....”oh you so good, you must be so patient, I could never do that”. What are people referring to here?

It’s fascinating to ask people what sparked their interest in working with people who have a disability. A number of people will have a relative who has a disability and others may have grown up knowing someone with a disability - maybe a relative, neighbour or someone at school. Other times, it could be a chance meeting or an interest sparked in some other way. My conversations recently with people applying to work as clinicians with Ability Consultants, got me thinking back to when I decided that working in disability was what I wanted to do. The main conversation that sparked me was a young woman whose best friend growing up was a neighbour who had cerebral palsy. They went to school together and when her friend died tragically many other students offered their sympathies. One in particular told her that they wished that they had got to know this girl, and when asked why they hadn't explained that the reason for not doing so, was not knowing how to communicate with her. How sad!

I finished school before I turned 16. Growing up, I had always dreamed of becoming an architect, as I played endlessly with my brother's limited collection of lego bricks - never quite having enough to ever complete a house! During my later years at High School, I thought I’d like a career in the fashion industry, even though I had flunked at sewing tasks. Before completing fourth form and attaining my School Certificate, I had changed my mind again and was focusing on becoming a Dental Nurse. Not sure why? I even went for an interview and got a placement at a surgery in Parramatta.

During my last year of High School, my mother was a member of the Parramatta Red Cross (VAD) Voluntary Aid Detachment and as part of her role had started volunteering at Marsden Hospital located in Westmead, a centre for children who were intellectually disabled (at the time referred to as mentally retarded). One day she asked me to accompany her. She was volunteering in a ward of children who were profoundly intellectually and physically disabled. I remember helping to feed some of these children and take them for walks around the hospital grounds during which times I met other children, some who had Down Syndrome or other conditions. After this visit, I decided that I might volunteer as well, and commenced volunteering on Sundays from 10am to 6pm. I worked with a group of children who were severely intellectually disabled and who were also visually impaired. I really looked forward to my Sundays and worked my butt off! My Dad had given up driving by then and so as well as working 8 hours, I also walked from our home in Wentworthville to Westmead and back. It was a long day! I remember forming some special relationships with a few of the children and used to take them out for the day or even had them to stay overnight at my family home. (things were very different back then….I am talking early 70’s!). I vividly remember meeting a young girl called Michelle. She had a severe facial deformity and had been placed in an institution from birth. She was a lovely young lady, full of humour, kindness, compassion and could also be quite bossy! She had communication difficulties, being born with a hair lip and severe cleft palate - probably no ID, but socially deprived growing up. When I first saw her, I was gripped with fear and remember holding my breath and shedding a few tears. Once I got to know her though, we became friends, enjoying trips to the zoo and the movies with my best friend from school, who had also started doing some voluntary work. This however was the defining moment that I decided to make this my career.

Community outings with Michelle and in subsequent years with countless other people with a disability have usually resulted in peoples glances, stares or avoidance. Obviously there are a number of reasons that people react like this - they could be scared, ignorant or maybe wanting to interact but knowing how to.

I enrolled for a Three Year Certificate in Mental Retardation Nursing, but was not able to commence until I turned 17. After I left school, my parents paid for me to learn typing and switchboard - for those oldies who can remember…..I’m a Receptionist Centre girl!! After I graduated (typing 40 words per minute) I got a job as a mail clerk in the city, for just over a year, until I could start at Marsden.

I can clearly recall the day I started - January 29 1973. I had turned 17, 2 days before.

Over my career, like many of you reading this, I often heard stories about certain clients, there are always those ones with particular reputations. Often they are those clients who have had a tough life and who people have continually given up on. Isn’t it fantastic when you look beyond that reputation, get to know them and learn their history and the function of their behaviour and can work with them and their support staff to initiate some positive changes. I'm sure that some of you will be able to recall some people that you have had successes working with and be able to have helped turn around the opinions of others about them.

And here I am still working in the disability field, some 47 years later. What an amazing and rewarding career. I have met some fantastic people, and am lucky to continue to do so. I absolutely love my current position working at Ability Consultants in a role recruiting new clinicians. It’s a pleasure meeting new applicants, of varying ages and diverse backgrounds, both experienced and new clinicians eager to make a difference in the area of disability and behaviour management and support.

The beauty from within - don’t judge a book by its cover!

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