Some of you may already know that I am taking a class called “Service Learning” in which we are assigned to a school where we help out for five hours a week, in most cases teaching English and just generally being a classroom aide. All of my fellow students abroad are placed in elementary schools doing just that, as promised in the brochure. I however, have a different placement. The director of service learning discovered that I was a Speech Pathology major, and very excitedly explained to me that they had a school for children with special needs that was part of their program, but since they rarely had exchange students with experience in this field they hardly ever placed students there. Since working with special needs students is an integral part of my future career I jumped at the opportunity to work in this school. I thought it would be good to get an idea for how special education was handled in Mexico, and working with students who speak Spanish as their native language would be great experience for me. Little did I know, I was walking into one of the most challenging situations of my academic career and would be pushed to my limit mentally, physically, and academically.
My first day I showed up to the school eager to meet the children and learn from the teachers and find out what exactly I would be helping out with during my daily one-hour visits. What I walked into was a house with two teachers, and twenty mentally handicapped people ranging in age from fourteen to forty eight. Most of the “students” at the school have Down Syndrome, but there are other disorders thrown in as well and widly varying levels of mental and physical functioning. I was a little shocked at the large age range, but what came next can only be described as completely overwhelming. When I asked what I would be doing for the day, one of the teachers told me that since I was a speech major they would be assigning the three most non-verbal “students” to me and I would be responsible for administering speech therapy to them every day. I didn’t even know how to respnd, and obviously wasn’t prepared so I spent my first hour session getting to know Gabi, Angel, and Jorge my three new clients with whom I would be spending the semester.
Since this point I have had many trying days at my service learning placement. From the every day struggle of creating a system for discipline and focus for two boys (Gabi, 14 and Angel, 20) who have never been asked to mind a day in their lives, to dealing with violent outbursts from another girl at the school who does not like that I work with Gabi, I have had my fair share of completely discouraging days. Gabi never wants to work, and thinks my Spanish is absolutely hysterical so getting him to actually focus on our lesson is nearly impossible, while Angel only has an attention span of about five minutes before his mind wanders and I have to spend another five minutes reeling him back in. Jorge is one of the sweetest boys I have ever met, and literally lives for our twenty minutes every day. He hangs on my every word and tries as hard as he can to understand what I am trying to teach him even if it doesn’t make any sense. Between the three of them it is always an eventful hour, oh and did I mention? THIS IS ALL IN SPANISH. Yes, I am giving speech therapy (which I’m not qualified to do in my native language) in Spanish, and hoping and praying that I am actually somehow benefitting these boys lives. The entire process while being an incredible learning experience, has been one of the most challenging tasks I have ever faced.
After realizing that verbal communication would be next to impossible with boys who had never had any therapy, and only had 3 months with me, I had to devise a way to still productively help them with their communication in the short time that I had. I decided to make picture boards for them, so that they could use pictures and words to communicate to others when their verbal communication could not be understood. It took me awhile, and cost quite a bit of money, but I finally had the picture boards ready to show the boys and teach them how to use. For those of you that don’t know what a picture board is, I basically created common sentences with blanks at the end where they could insert a picture. Things like “I need..” and “I want…” are typed out and then they can attach a picture of what they need or want via velcro. I was so optimistic and excited bringing them to the school and starting my session last week with Gabi, but quickly realized that my work was nowhere near done and I would have to continue fighting each and every day to get them to understand how to use their picture boards. Gabi and Angel cannot read so every day has been spent trying to teach them to recognize the phrases and then filling in the blank with the picture that they need. Jorge can read very basic sentences, so recognizing sentences wasn’t as difficult for him but still required days and days of drills. Finally, this past Thursday, I had my first moment of success and it made the past weeks of struggling all worth it.
Jorge seemed to be recognizing the sentences pretty well, so I decided that maybe it was time for me to show him how he will actually use this as a system of communication in his every day life. Most of the pictures, or in his case words, are of every day household objects that I didn’t have on hand so we couldn’t use those, but I did have crayons and coloring pages with me (their reward for working for ten minutes is five minutes of coloring) so I decided to use those. I layed out the sentence “I want…” and all of the cards with the names of colors on them and gave Jorge his coloring page. I asked him to pick the card for the color he wanted to use to color, put it with the sentence and hand it to me. He looked at me like I was insane, and just wanted to have the crayons to himself, but since he is a sweet heart he humored me and did as I said. When he handed me the sentence, I very slowly read the sentence outloud, saying “Oh! Jorge wants the color blue! Okay Jorge, here is the blue crayon” and gave him the blue crayon. As I did this, I saw in his eyes that he was comprehending what had just happened and was very excited. He used the blue crayon to color for a few minutes, and then put it down and instead of motioning immediately found the card for the color that he wanted and put it in his sentence and handed it to me. This time when I read it outloud and gave him the crayon he wanted he couldn’t contain his excitement for what he had just done. He immediately got up and was laughing and hugging me, almost in tears because I had understood what he wanted to say. I won’t lie, I could barely hold back the tears either. Finally, I had made a difference! Finally, he understood that what we were doing was going to help people understand him! Finally, I had created a way for this non-verbal man who had lived to be 23 without ever being able to express himself to communicate effectively with the world! I will say that it is one of the best feelings I have ever had, and even if I cannot make as much progress as I want to with Gabi and Angel, or even if every day this week I have to plead with Gabi to get him to focus, it will all be worth it to know that I have made a difference in the life of this one man.