I was recently asked to write about how a person with a disability might be able to get their needs met living in a rural community that doesn't have much for resources. I was instructed to think in terms of giving advice to an individual on what they could do; with a focus on autism. The idea is to use what I and others submit as a training tool. Here's what I wrote, with a few changes for clarification sake...
Beyond The Obvious
For all your own good reasons, you've chosen to live in rural America, away from the city, where getting your needs met wouldn't be nearly as difficult as what you're looking at. There's no reason to panic if you or someone who knows you is able to see "beyond the obvious". Always remember it's not you or your disability that makes life tricky, it's a world that has long neglected the idea of including EVERYONE as an equal opportunity participant in the community. Throughout history people with disabilities have been looked upon as second class citizens. Though things have slowly improved, I believe we still have a long way to go.
Of course, you'll want to be tied into some real advocacy in your new environment. There are agencies and individuals who are well paid to be there for you, but this can be very challenging. Many people who claim to be disability advocates, really are not. They may simply see you as part of their job. Look for passion! Look for people who understand the disability racket, and have experience in taking on the status quo. Just because someone holds some sort of title, doesn't mean they have YOUR best interests at heart! You don't want to learn this lesson the hard way, so always make sure you know the person(s), and their intentions going in. ASK LOTS OF QUESTIONS. If you do this thoroughly, and take this task seriously, you'll be much better off in the long run.
What's really important is fully understanding how important it is to educate people on how your disability can be their reward. Many people have an inner need to feel like they're making a positive effect in the world. These are the same people who find reward in doing things that help their neighbors. This is not about pity, it's about ALLOWING people to be as great as they can be. Refusing people the opportunity to be helpful, is no different than people refusing you the opportunity to participate. Live and let live.
It's equally important that you realize many people are fearful of stepping away from the comfort of familiarity. When people have someone they can talk to who experienced the same situation that they did, it makes them that much more comfortable. It's wise to have more than 1 person assisting you. Not doing so causes folks to wonder if they did/said the right thing. If they lose enough of their self confidence, they will likely retreat, and you will lose whatever support you were getting from them. If they have someone to talk to they are more likely to feel reassured, and are less likely to retreat. This is a good reason to believe there's "strength in numbers". There's nothing like a "team" effort.
I'd like to tell you about a short documentary I watched recently. The title is "Picking up Butch", and it deals with a man in his 60's who has cerebral palsy. He lives in the relatively small town of Middlebury Vermont; population, 8000. Because he is physically compromised, he uses a wheel chair. His arms and hands also contribute to his personal challenges. He grew up in Middlebury, where he became a big fan of the University's football and basketball programs, as well as the college and students themselves. Getting to the games was a major difficulty for him as a child. Now, at 63 and living in a nursing home it would be even more difficult for him, except for one thing. Butch has earned the love and respect of the entire student body!
Where he lives is what he calls a "boring" place.Most of the other residents are in their 70's and 80's. What's most important to Butch is getting to the games, and hanging out with the younger students. As the title of the film suggests, each home game day, students come to the nursing home, pick him up, and take him to the games themselves. It's a tradition that has held for 50 years. Somehow the information about Butch, his physical needs, his mild fear of being in a van, and his love for what happens at the school have been passed down from class to class over the years. He is totally a crowd favorite, almost like he's on the team himself. Everybody knows Butch! It's all about the relationships he's established in the past 50 years with people who want to do good things. It's not only about sports either. He's gotten his equivalency diploma with the assistance and tutoring of a non athlete. Butch is not any kind of mascot, he is accepted as having a seat with everyone else.
I guess the story of Butch and how he and his disability have enriched the lives of so many others is not only inspiring, but shows me that with some "beyond the obvious" thinking you can thrive, living in a rural area. Some strategies that come to mind involve getting out in the community where people begin to recognize you. Smaller communities make it easier for people to become familiar with you, and as I said earlier, familiarity brings about comfort.
Look for a college! There's usually some kind of formal adult education happening in every part of the country. Check out the fire department! It's always a good idea to let them know when you move into a new community, especially if you have physical challenges. Who knows? Maybe you'll find a new friend there. If you're comfortable, visit a church! A cafe! Wherever you can feel relaxed and be yourself. If you can, introduce yourself to people. If that's something you're unable to do, have someone with you who can, and is comfortable in doing so. My thinking is that if you are out in the sticks, you're going to need to rattle some branches in order to be noticed. Share (with those who seem interested) what sort of support you need. You don't need to ask them to provide the support, but it's fine to discuss your needs with others, if you're comfortable doing it.
Generally speaking, people who live in the country (as opposed to city) are a more open and friendly people. Once they feel comfortable with you, they'd likely give you the shirt off their back. You're also likely to be near something not usually found in the city. Farms where they have horses. Not all people like horses, but many do. Developing a personal relationship with a horse and their owner could give you many hours of satisfaction, while being therapeutic at the same time. Rural areas also are less stressful. The sounds and smells, are much more relaxing than the sounds and smells of the city. If you are a bit of a high strung individual, just being in nature can often help you feel relaxed. Your biggest issue will be in figuring out how to get around. There's often lots of miles in between places you may want to go.
Transportation in rural places can often be sparse. Developing relationships can be very helpful in this area. At the risk of sounding redundant, I'll say it again. It's all about the relationships when you live in a rural area. You really do need to depend on community! So does everyone else who lives near you. It's a different lifestyle and you, along with the people who support you, need to keep that in the forefront of your mind. Reaching out to another human is good for you AND them. It's a win/win situation.
If you can tell people your story, they'll likely take an interest in you and probably want to spend more time getting to know you on a deeper level. That is why I feel so strongly about making YOURSELF a valued part of the community. Overcoming injustice and/or intolerance can be a full time job. If you don't do it, who will?
Another option is starting something up yourself, and inviting others to participate. If you need help in accomplishing this, ask for it! Look for peers with and without disabilities, and become friends with them. You may find yourself pleasantly surprised to discover they have similar needs or wants as you. It's about being "out there", participating in your own life. You may also discover that there is grant money available to get something going. You'll never know unless you ask.
At this point I feel it's important to let you know a very important fact... You Are Not Alone!! If you're choosing to live alone, it's critical that you don't isolate at home. Many people choose to live in rural areas for several reasons. Whatever yours may be, always remember that isolating yourself leads to loneliness, self doubt, and ultimately depression. It may be difficult doing some of the strategies I'm suggesting here, but in the long run, you'll find success if you just keep on trying. I'm aware that all I'm writing may be a bit overwhelming to you, but it's going to take some work to make things come together.
Here's another key thought for you... Disability Rights are, in fact, Civil Rights. The Americans with Disabilities Act is something you'll want to hang on to, living rurally. In fact, if you're someone who likes to read, you may want to study the ADA and the Olmstead Decision. These documents can be both useful and important in your life. There may come a time where you'll need to have some legal assistance as you work to create the life you want. I say this because you need to protect your rights. Before you resort to the ADA for solutions, it's a good idea to see if you can work things out through a civil conversation with whoever may be holding you back. They may be unaware that they're stepping on your right(s), and sometimes a chat can take care of things. If that doesn't work, you may want to seek legal advice. You might want to avoid being characterized as a malcontent or lawsuit happy by trying to deal with problems outside the courtroom if possible.
Speaking of reading, the library can be a good free resource for you. You'll find a wealth of information while making yourself visible to tother folks in your community. Libraries can serve for both serious studying and recreation. They are generally quiet places, so you'll find a peaceful environment when you go there. In addition to the traditional books, libraries often lend out DVD's, have internet access, computer games, and magazines. You'll also probably come into contact with a community bulletin board, which will give you ideas of other things you can do where you live. A good library can be like a good friend!
If you're able to work, you just might make some friends while bringing some cash into your life. Find out what sort of job assistance you are eligible for. Often times you can find a "job developer" to help you find a job, and the state might pay for this service. If you have trouble doing the work at first a "job coach" may be just what you need. They teach you the job and help you work on becoming independent in the workplace. Living in the country, job opportunities will probably be somewhat limited, so be sure to set your sights realistically. You can often grow into liking a job that you dislike initially.
So now you have my ideas about what you can do to thrive in a rural area. There may even be more, but this should be a good starting point. Just remember to always use your imagination and to try to think (and see) "beyond the obvious". Become acquainted with the people around you. You'll do just fine!