This inspiring guest post is from Heather Stubbs who puts her work and life experience as a stage and concert performer to good use today as a speaker and presentation skills trainer. Here Heather describes some recent work she has done with disabled young women…what a joyful story of hope and helping!
Most people perform everyday tasks with barely a second thought. For people living with an intellectual disability, tasks such as cleaning, shopping, cooking and using a public transportation system are serious challenges. Community Living is an organization that teaches people with intellectual disabilities to meet these challenges, helping them integrate into the larger community and achieve a level of independence.
The Peterborough, Ontario, branch of Community Living plans to raise its profile and educate the public about its work. Knowing that good speaking skills are vital for getting a message across, the administrators engaged me to help prepare their “Ambassadors” for the upcoming presentations. I will spend an hour and a half with each of two very different groups over four Thursdays. The speakers will include not only the members of Community Living Peterborough’s Ambassadors (staff and Members), but also the self-advocate leaders of the “Young Women’s Group.” These are women, mostly in their twenties, with varying degrees and types of intellectual disabilities. I fell in love with them from the first moment!
Several outstanding qualities showed immediately in everyone in the group. Without exception, every woman was utterly herself. Some are shy, some are outgoing, but, unlike people with greater intellectual capacity, who sometimes try to project an image of how they want to be seen, these women are not trying to be anything but who they genuinely are. How refreshing to know that the person you are talking to is the one who’s really there! It’s lovely to watch how consistently good natured and supportive of one another these special women are. They know they all face the same challenges, and they understand the value of encouragement. Would that we all had such understanding!
Our first session centred on standing with good posture and looking people in the eye. Making direct eye contact is noticeably difficult for most people with intellectual disabilities. We worked in two groups of four, and each participant met eyes with one other member of her group and said, “Hello, my name is So-and-so.” With no input from me, the women expanded their statements to include telling something they liked. Graduating from the small groups to the full group, we did some pretending. “What would your face and body look like if you felt really sure of yourself speaking to the group? Would you smile?” Most of the women discovered they could stand tall in front of the group, smile and say their name and something they liked.
This was new territory for these people. Even though they had never done anything like this before, they were willing to expand their vision of what they were capable of. Most of them were able to gather their courage and explore the new skill of speaking to a group. Please bear in mind that some of these women have difficulty forming words at all!
For me, focusing on giving enjoyment to the audience instead of getting their approval was a huge factor in eliminating the fear of being onstage. For my second session with the Women’s Group, I wanted to go further in building their self-confidence, so I got them doing role play. The idea of giving to an audience was a bit too abstract at first, so they worked in pairs, pretending to give each other an actual gift. I emphasized that when they speak to an audience what they give is their friendliness.
The women have a tremendous sense of fun, and there was a good deal of laughing and horsing around during this session. The fun worked its magic, though. In the first session, two women were so shy they could not say their name in front of the whole group, although these were all friends they knew well. Even with encouragement, they simply would not do it. This time, one of them stood up, said her name, and said that she spoke for Community Living and the Status of Women Canada, and that Community Living helped her meet everyday challenges. The other needed the support of a friend standing beside her, but she did speak to the whole group. Not only that, but both of them enjoyed the experience so much, they each did it two more times, faces beaming, and speaking more firmly and clearly each time.
Truly, these are miracles! I feel honoured to have been present for them. We have two more sessions to go. I’m enjoying working with both groups, but it’s the members of the “Women’s Group” who fill me with joy. How thrilling it is to see their willingness to stretch themselves and explore new experiences! Their courage and openness stand as inspiration to those of us blessed with full capacities. Let us, like them, use fully whatever gifts we have been given.
Jane, thank you so much for using this article. It was a wonderful experience to work with this group of special women. Fear of speaking to a group is so widespread, yet so unnecessary! If these women, who live with such big challenges, could find a way to leave behind their fear, surely anyone can! It just takes a change of perspective.
Heather - what you do for and with these young women is simply inspiring! Women supporting other women in fulfilling their dreams and potential deserves the spotlight.