Glen was a little man in size. He had come to our agency after his mother had passed away. He was placed on my caseload. He sat tilted to one side of his wheelchair due to the extreme curvature of his spine. His limp legs were small and useless. He had a lopsided grin as he watched everything that went on around him. His records said he was profoundly disabled, with severely limited mental capacity. He also could not speak nor hear. We read that his elderly mother had cared for him, and she carried him in her arms from room to room because the family could not afford a wheelchair. After his mothers passing, Glen had been placed in a group home, and the home had placed him with our agency during the day.
At the time I was in my late twenties and had served in two other county programs. I had driven the bus, cared for children, worked in a group home and worked in the workshops for adults. I remember the day Glen was placed with me. I had never worked with anyone that was so profoundly disabled. I felt scared and hopelessly unqualified and didn’t know where to start.
As the days and weeks went on we assisted him in all his personal needs and with eating his meals. While working with others in my class I would glance over and notice Glen was intently watching me. There was something in his soulful big brown eyes that made me feel maybe there was more going on his mind than we were aware of. He would try to communicate with gestures. At first, I felt they were just random hand motions, but as time went on we realized there was a pattern to his gestures. It almost appeared he had developed his own sign language to communicate. Once we realized what some of his gestures meant, he was so happy we understand a tiny bit of what he was trying to tell us.
We decided to have him tested and evaluated. I was certain his records were incorrect. An expert came with all her tests and evaluated him. She spent hours arranging plastic blocks and attempting to see if he could follow directions and solve simple problems. I was sure the tests would show he wasn’t as profoundly mentally challenged as his scores indicated. At the end of the day the evaluator packed up her equipment and solemnly explained, perhaps Glen was more severely disabled than previously thought.
The months passed and I felt a very close bond with him, although we really could not communicate very well with each other somehow a friendship began to develop between us. There was something in his eyes that made me feel there was a person trapped due to his disabilities, wanting to be free and communicate with the world.
I had not been trained in sign language or how to teach sign language. I knew several words and phrases from working with others. One day I decided my aide and I would put together a picture book of signs and attempt to teach the signs to Glen. Every day I would take Glen into the empty cafeteria and sat at a picnic table, so we were on the same level. I would go through the signs and point to things and show the sign. Sometimes I would take his hands and show him how to make the sign. He was an eager learner. I think he enjoyed the one on one attention. Day after day we went into the cafeteria and went through the signs. We would try to incorporate the signing with his daily routine hopeful he would see the link between the action and the signing.
Months passed and little to no progress was made. I sensed he was getting weary of the sessions, or perhaps he felt my frustration. He would only imitate the signs, and at times I almost wondered if he was mocking me with them. One day after nine or more months of trying, I was extremely frustrated and felt impatient with him. I felt he had similar feelings. I was so frustrated I had to leave the room for a few minutes to clear my mind and to decide if all of this was worth the time and effort. I got up and walked out of the cafeteria leaving him all alone in the big empty room. I pushed open the heavy steel door and walked out into the hall. I turned and looked at him through the metal mesh of the door’s window. Our eyes met. I instantly felt bad for walking out and leaving him. He looked at me for a long moment and held up his little hands and signed, “open door.” I started to cry and even to this day decades later I weep when I think of Glen sitting alone looking so small in the room and signing for me to open the door. I felt joy he finally understood the purpose of the signs, but also felt an intense sadness that he had been all alone with his thoughts for the forty plus years of his life.
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Within several weeks he learned over 300 words and was often communicating faster than I could understand. And if there were words we didn’t teach him, he invented his own signs. We discovered he was a bright man, and while he could be very ornery, he was also very religious. We spent hours communicating and became good friends. I can freely say I loved Glen. He was kind and generous and had the heart of a warrior. He was always positive and upbeat.
We were able to acquire an expensive communication device that spoke for him with a synthetic voice. A State agency paid for the device, due mostly to a State worker’s amorous feelings for me. It got so bad I had to hide from her when she came into our building. It was embarrassing, but this is a story I’d rather keep to myself!
Glen enjoyed his six thousand dollar communication device. In the beginning I had terrible stress induced headaches trying to learn how to program the machine. He especially got a kick out of pushing the button asking for hugs as he chased ladies around the building. While I found it amusing, many of the female employees did not see the humor in it.
Glen had many health problems and would often aspirate, getting food in his lungs when he ate. It got so bad he had to have a feeding tube installed, and he wasn’t very happy about it. I visited him on Halloween at his home, and asked him if he had been eating the candy. He adamantly signed, “No!” He didn’t realize I could see all the chocolate smeared on his lips and chin where he had been eating it!
He had a medical procedure to probe his esophagus and the medical professional tore the lining and caused a severe life threatening condition. Glen was placed in ICU and was dying. I would go to visit him, and he would beg me to take him home. One day he wasn’t doing well and I sat beside his bed and started crying. He reached over and pulled a Gideon Bible off his table and took my hand and prayed for me. I was there to provide comfort to him, but he was the one giving me strength and support.
After Glen passed away his elderly sisters came to visit me at work and thanked me for all I had done for their brother. One sister left me a very touching letter. I explained to them Glen had given me far more than I had ever given to him. Glen was my friend. He enriched my life. Nearly forty years have passed since that day he asked me to open the door. I warmly and lovingly think of him often.