During college, I obtained a job with Residential Services, Inc., a company providing homes to disabled residents. As a habilitation aide, I assisted residents with habits of daily living and special programs. I worked at a number of the houses and met many of the residents, but the one I remember most was Russell.
After his birth in the 1940s, doctors determined he had cerebral palsy and advised his mother to put him in a residential hospital where he was labeled profoundly mentally retarded. Russell lacked the use of his legs and one arm and had severe speech impairments.
When I met 55-year-old Russell, his curly red hair and white beard partially covered his lined face, but he wore a noticeable scowl. He would not speak to me although I was responsible for bathing, dressing, and feeding him. We eventually discovered a common interest in country music. Once, while I was singing to myself, he became excited. He raced his electric wheelchair into his room and returned with a picture of himself dressed like Willie Nelson, whom he resembled. From that moment on, we were best buddies. With the help of a picture board, we began communicating. I found he could say a lot of words and phrases. Although garbled, I began to recognize his vernacular, and it became apparent to me that Russell was mislabeled. He was not profoundly mentally retarded. He was wise and intuitive, and I wondered what Russell could have achieved if he had been born today.
I worked at RSI until I graduated, and stayed in touch with Russell after I married and had my first baby. The last time I saw him, he was clutching my newborn daughter in his “good” arm. I will never forget the wonderful man society tossed aside. His life was inspirational, and he was one of my most memorable teachers. He taught me never to underestimate a person’s capacity to overcome life’s obstacles, a lesson I continue to pass on to my students and children.