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We, too, are storytellers: People own the stories told from their perspective

By Cathryn Baldner, president of the board of directors, The Spectrum Network

Professor Walter R. Fisher, Ph.D., is credited with coining the term Homo narrans to describe the universal nature of storytelling. Although nearly everyone is capable of storytelling, the universality of that ability does not always receive equal recognition.

The Spectrum Network in Decorah, Iowa, recognized numerous and diverse storytelling voices when it published From My Perspective: Essays About Disability. Now in its second printing, the book celebrates the stories of persons with disabilities, their parents and caregivers, and rehabilitation professionals.

The story begins with a kernel of insight
During a trip to Minneapolis, Spectrum’s past executive director Toni Smith enjoyed a production at Interact Theatre, a company of paid actors with disabilities. The performance was followed by a dinner with individuals who she assumed were directors like herself. Later, she learned that two of her dinner companions were persons served. She remembers, “I saw people with disabilities being actors and artists. I saw competence and ability onstage and off.”

Her experience sparked the idea that persons served by Spectrum should have an opportunity to showcase their talents, like the Interact Theatre performers, to an audience.

What about stories? People tell stories all the time. If they can tell them, can they write them down for other others to discover and enjoy? Individuals with disabilities are often anonymous to persons outside of their communities, but, as authors, they can become known.

The story unfolds
A writing venture at Spectrum was launched. Kris Schanilec, a freelance writer who had worked with Spectrum on public relations projects, enlisted the help of Rachel Faldet, an assistant professor in English at nearby Luther College. The pair volunteered to coordinate the project.

The project organizers agreed that the book would focus on living with disabilities from the perspectives of persons served, their loved ones, and professionals.

Participants were recruited for the first group writing workshop. The first session established a goal to set down the participants’ thoughts on paper. The budding authors were reassured that they did not need to fret about grammar, spelling, complete sentences, or whether they had writing experience. They needed only to be descriptive and specific in expressing themselves on paper. If a participant was physically unable to write, a scribe wrote down the words.

Spectrum receptionist/secretary Brenda Olson typed the drafts. She corrected grammar and spelling and connected pieces of the story parts. For example, if someone began telling a story and started another story, then returned to the first story, Brenda typed the interrupted story with all of its parts before moving to the second story.

In a follow-up writing session, the writers and scribes gathered to review their drafts and respond to Rachel’s comments that she had written in the margin of each manuscript.

As an editor, Rachel’s comments were crafted to move the writing from general comments on disability issues to specific impressions of how the writers interpreted their world. For example, Rachel wrote to one writer, “I’m interested in hearing about how you became a staff member—how did you find out about the job? Why were you interested in becoming a staff member other than not being a client?” She ended the note with encouragement, “Good job with your writing so far. I appreciate your honesty in expressing your ideas and experiences.”

Following the second writing workshop, Rachel and Kris continued to massage the essays, remaining true to the authors’ voices but shaping the text for readability. Brenda typed the final manuscript for publication.

The eye-opening next chapter
The bookmaking process began with a cover design to capture the writers’ varied viewpoints. A college art major, Rachel’s daughter called on a metaphor of seeing with her drawings of eyes. Whose eyes? Ours, theirs, yours, mine. The project coordinators believed that open eyes can lead to an open heart.

Kris’s husband, an artist skilled in book design, volunteered his expertise to lay out the book. With underwriting from the Winneshiek County Community Foundation, local publisher Eric Anundsen printed the initial run of From My Perspective: Essays About Disability.

At the book’s first public reading and book signing, Rachel discussed the genesis of the project and several authors read their stories aloud. Book readings sprung up in neighboring towns, and Iowa Public Radio featured the project. In its most recent CARF survey report, Spectrum received an exemplary commendation for the book’s development and publication.

The story continues to unfold
This writing project captured the vulnerability that people experience when they share their thoughts and feelings with others—and the pride that everyone feels in being recognized for doing a job well.

Tammy Faux, M.S.S.W., Ph.D., associate professor at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, believed that the book gave her students an opportunity to better understand the lives of persons they might work with or advocate for in the future. After assigning the book to her class as a supplementary text, she and three students developed a teaching and learning guide for the book.

Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, became a partner in the book, too. The recording facilities at the college’s radio station, KWLC, were used to produce an audio version of the book on CD.

Ultimately, it is the emotion and conviction of the authors’ own words that convey the reason the project worked so well.

The story begins: About The Spectrum Network

Spectrum, thespectrumnetwork.org, assists adults with mental illness; physical, developmental, or intellectual disabilities; and chemical dependence by providing job skills training, adult day services, supported community programs, and community employment programs.

Founded in 1974 as the Area I Developmental Center for Adult Handicapped Individuals, the organization originally served thirteen persons in the basement of Grace Episcopal Church in Decorah, Iowa. The name was changed to the Winneshiek Developmental Center until the organization merged with Sheltered Work, Inc., to become Spectrum Industries, later known as The Spectrum Network.

Each name change reflected a shift in perspective in terms of expectations, education, and work. Although the organization’s name, buildings, and programs have changed over the years, the mission of making the persons served the top priority has remained constant. Spectrum’s story looks beyond an individual’s disability and recognizes each human spirit as worthy and valuable. This recognition helped shape Spectrum’s mission: “We create customized solutions for people so they can live and work in an integrated community.”

Unlike a novel that draws to a close, Spectrum’s story continues to flourish. It is being formed and re-formed by clients’ needs, staff expertise, and a community whose heart values all of its citizens.

About the author

A concern for diversity, social justice, and community has formed the basis of Cathryn Baldner’s teaching career in high schools and colleges. Her teaching years at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, were filled with performances and courses that explored social issues of prejudice, self-concept, and peace.

State, regional, and national professional organizations have provided forums for Cathryn’s research interests in family narrative and performance. Her present volunteer position as the president of the board of directors of The Spectrum Network complements her concerns about justice and community.

Cathryn has served on boards for Habitat for Humanity; League of Women Voters; American Association of University Women (AAUW); and The Depot Outlet, Inc. The Winneshiek County Board of Supervisors has appointed her to serve on the Winneshiek County Mental Health/Developmental Disabilities Services Citizens’ Advisory Board.

11/28/2012
(Historical Newsletter Articles,Employment and Community Services)


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