I just watched a video on a young savant named Stephan Wiltshire. He like musician Derek Paravicini has amazing skills even though both of them are considered to be “mentally challenged”. Early in my career as a social worker for the Michigan Department of Public Mental Health, I had the opportunity to get to know and work with savants who had been institutionalized because their families and so-called authorities at that point in time did not recognize their potential as contributions to society.
My work with the developmentally challenged taught me that everyone has certain gifts that are not always discernible to the eye. To quote a euphemism one cannot judge a ‘book’ by it’s cover! My very first immediate supervisor, during my DMH days, was an RN with a masters degree in English. At our staff meetings she would accuse me of giving our consumers “too much credit” when it came to estimating their cognitive abilities. I spent a lot of time on the wards with the consumers and the direct care staff. After a point we all bonded. We understood on an intrinsic level that we all shared commonalities of the human condition. I spent the majority of my time observing the residents, their responses to the environment they lived in and their interactions with the staff and their peers. As a student of empiricism, my annual social summaries written about the consumers were more objective than anyone realized and were markedly different from summaries from previous years. The social workers that created the previous summaries would cut and paste reports that were old and inaccurate. No one questioned the sameness of the reports. After reviewing my work my supervisor Nurse Alice would go on the wards and question the staff about the validity of my summaries. To her consternation, she discovered that my reports were an accurate reflection of the consumers abilities based on my observations and the feedback from a staff had deliberately mislead other social workers! At a point in our “professional relationship” Nurse Alice willfully contradicted her knowledge of English grammar, when reviewing my reports, in an effort to prove that I was her intellectual inferior! Her challenges to my writing style only served to hone my skills. Long before I met Nurse Alice I understood that pressure makes diamonds.
As a young black man, my mental abilities had been severely underestimated throughout my academic and professional career so it was no big stretch for me to understand that others whom society had categorized as mentally deficient might also be capable of more than they were given credit for.
God Don’t Make Mistakes
I have heard that saying all of my life having grown up in the black church. I applied that faith-based logic to my consumers back in the day. Prior to my work at that facility, I had no knowledge of a population of severely mentally and physically disabled people to the extent that I encountered at my job. I had to work it out in my own mind as to how and why they had become afflicted. I came to understand that the diagnosis of “mechanic injury at birth” meant that many of them had been delivered with forceps and a few had their deliveries postponed until the doctor arrived! Most of them had been stored away in the institutions and forgotten by their families. In some instances the families sent out death notices in an effort to conceal the fate of their prodgeny!
Scientists speculate that we actively use about 7% of our brains for conscious thought. Working with the developmentally challenged caused me to ponder; what might be going on with the other 93% and alternatively when cognitive areas of the brain are damaged what areas of the brain take over those functions? I worked with savants that could not remember your name but could recall the month, day and year in which you were born by the mere sound of your voice. There was a young man in our program that could walk through a building and later draw a detailed floor plan but was incapable of performing anything other than rudimentary self-care!
I met those young men decades ago. I shudder to contemplate what might have become of them. The facility where they lived closed some years ago. They were most likely placed into foster care if they survived the trauma of transitioning from the institution to a “less restrictive environment”. God only knows their fate.
When the public mental health system was dismantled in the late nineties, advocacy for the chronic mentally and developmentally challenged effectively died too. Many of the people that were housed in state funded facilities now roam the streets. Many of the critically ill did not survive the transition from 24 hour supervised care to foster care. Ironically, the Department of Public Mental Health under the Blanchard Administration declared community placement a success! Engler put the last nails in the coffin by closing the remainder of the DMH facilities and privatizing most of the agencies’ functions. In the past 2 years, with the Michigan economy in crisis, many of the privately funded agencies that flourished in the 90’s have been forced to downsize or close.
I fear for the fate of all the undiscovered talents like Stephan and Derek. There have to literally be thousands of men and women with undiscovered talents like theirs. The erosion of social programs will prevent their discovery. That erosion already prevents basic care for the poor and disabled. It will take something short of a miracle to reverse that trend. I shall remain optimistic cause God don’t make no mistakes.