Topics: Ethical Living | Opinion

Lessons from a support worker

This writer says others often shy away from speaking about his work with those who have intellectual disabilities because of their own deep fears


So I was wiping this guy’s butt the other day. Now, I know what you’re thinking, I lost a bar bet, right? Nope. Neither was the individual an infant. He was, like myself, a middle-aged man, one of many such individuals I assist in day-to-day living at my day job as a DSP (direct support professional) to those with intellectual disabilities. In this instance, the man was mortified, almost to the point of tears. I reassured him that everybody needs help sometimes, that accidents happen and that I was more than happy to be there for him. Apparently, this makes me a hero.

When people find out about my day job, they usually say things like, “That must be so rewarding,” “It takes a special person to do what you do,” or the time honoured, “I could never do that.” The truth is, all those former statements can be summed up in the latter and the latter is, in almost all cases, a lie that people tell themselves because what I do reminds them of things they are deeply afraid of.

You see, what I do isn’t heroic in the sense they imply. Wiping people’s bums, changing soiled clothes, escorting people from place to place and helping them move on from problematic outbursts is simply the reality I’m surrounded by. I can either respond to it or not. I do get paid for what I do but the reasons I’m still doing it after two-and-a-half years are way more complex than a direct deposit. In many ways, this is my church. My exhausting, challenging, sometimes heartbreaking but usually joyful and nurturing church. In short, it’s what any church should be for the person that attends it. It’s the church that offers comfort in place of shame and makes us unafraid of each other’s bums.

In many ways, this is my church. My exhausting, challenging, sometimes heartbreaking but usually joyful and nurturing church.

Frank Zappa once said, “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.” We are so afraid of the norm, that to interact with it, or even other people, becomes a sort of deviation robbed of the power to make progress. The people I’m surrounded by at work, no matter what their level of physical or intellectual disability, are, of course, no different than you or I. Full of likes and dislikes, tempers and the need to connect. No different. Not even when they need someone else to wipe that butt. In fact, let’s call the butt Norm.

What are we afraid of? I think we know. That someday, that will be our “Norm” that needs wiped or the “Norm” of someone we love, or God forbid, the “Norm” of a stranger staring up at us in all its soiled glory like Nietzsche’s abyss, reminding us of how connected we all are to sin, mortality, and the stink of failure. The human behind may have only one aperture or “eye,” but that’s all it really needs to reveal back to us who we really are.

In a now-classic Seinfeld episode, the character Elaine is stuck in a bathroom stall out of toilet paper and finds herself shunned by the woman in the stall next to her when she asks if she can spare a square or two. It’s like a modern-day retelling of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Confronted by the abject, afraid of contamination, Elaine’s stall-mate runs away.

Kurt Vonnegut offers a reminder of this inevitability: “I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.” I think we all need that reminder when we get teary-eyed, ashamed or feel guilty. We all fart around a lot. Sometimes a fart is just a fart and sometimes… we need a little help.

Those feelings might be necessary in different situations but only so we can bear witness to something greater for each other. Staring at “Norm” can quickly devolve into navel-gazing despair or easy mysticism. What’s really needed is a sense of humour, the assurance we’re going to be OK and the willingness to get dirty for each other.

This is the third installment in a blog series by Dave Canfield called “Out-There Faith.” 


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