Speaker reflects on serving those with disabilities
Gina Twardosz | Wednesday, March 7, 2018
Helping is not the same as serving. On Tuesday, Susan Latham, Saint Mary’s associate professor of communication and sciences disorders, explored this idea as it relates to the difference between helping those with disabilities and serving those with disabilities.
For Latham, serving those with disabilities means working alongside them.
“When we say we want to help others, we’re meaning that they need to be helped rather than talking about serving others and being alongside them,” she said.
Latham said that many speech and language pathologists utilize a medical model which focuses on fixing or helping those with disabilities.
“This idea comes from a medical model orientation — as well as when we say that we’re fixing people — it means that we’re starting from someone’s deficits rather than their strengths,” she said. “It sees disability as a problem that belongs to the disabled. The issue is seen having to do with the individual rather than the issue being with society.”
A social model finds issue with society, not the individual, said Latham.
“If we look at a wheelchair-using student being unable to get into a building because of some steps, the medical model suggests that this is because of the wheelchair, rather than the steps,” she said. “If we approach this disability through the social model, the steps are the disabling barrier. This model draws on the idea that it is society that disables people by designing everything to meet the needs of the majority of people who are not disabled.”
Latham quoted author Rachel Naomi Remen and said that those in the medical profession have to connect with their patients in order have meaningful interactions.
“‘Fixing and helping create a distance between people, but we cannot serve at a distance. We can only serve to which we are profoundly connected,’” Latham said. “So, I feel as a speech language pathologist, I need to be profoundly connected to my clients, to my families that I work with, and I can’t do that at a distance.”
Serving, as opposed to helping, helps health professionals to see the individual as a whole, Latham explained.
“When you’re helping someone, and you say you’re helping someone, you see that life as being weak,” she said. “When you fix, you see that life as broken. But when you serve, you see life as a whole. I believe that’s how we should approach our work in the medical professions and health professions.”
Latham said the relationship that grows from merely helping an individual with disabilities is rooted in inequality.
“The relationships that we have when we’re helping, is one that is not between equals … and what happens then is that these people who you work with feel that inequality,” she said. “They’re ashamed when they haven’t done the work that you’ve told them to. We have to make sure that we’re making them feel, at least equal, if not, the most important person in the room.”
Latham noted that service requires introspection on the part of health professionals..
“What happens when we help? We become aware of our own strength,” she said. “When we serve, we don’t serve with our strength — we serve with ourselves and draw from our experiences.”
Latham said serving is about becoming one’s true self.
“This is really about becoming our true self,” she said. “Not the fault self. Not who you think you’re called to be or how you think other people perceive you. We’re not embracing our failures or our limitations by serving.”
While helping or fixing can be draining in the professional field, serving those with disabilities can be a rewarding and energizing experience.
“Service is a relationship between people,” she said. “When we try to fix and help, it becomes draining, and that’s when [professionals] become burnt out. What happens in the schools and hospitals when you have speech language pathologists who want to quit all the time? And they want to quit all the time from schools because it’s impossible to serve others if you have a caseload of 120 students.
“You’re going to have to approach your caseload by asking how do I fix this? How do I help people? Not, how do I serve people? And people get burnt out because we don’t find happiness in helping or fixing. When we are serving, it is very rewarding. Our work itself will renew us. I always know when I’m serving others because I feel excited, I feel that enthusiasm.”
Latham said that while helping those with disabilities may provide some satisfaction, service goes deeper and makes a health professional feel gratitude for being able to do that work that they do.
“In helping, you may find a sense of satisfaction, but in serving, you will find a sense of gratitude.”