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  • Writer's pictureBailey Martindale

Try Another Way:One Woman's Journey Of Her 50 Years Working For Those With Intellectual Disabilities

“I am a better person because many of the people showed me how important it is to try another way when today was not successful. Many days were trying a task another way,” said Judi Myers.

Myers recently retired after 50 years working with Intellectual disabilities/developmental disabilities (ID/DD). Her career began running a preschool for ID/DD. She was also involved in the closures of state-operated institutions in OK, TN, CO and AL. These closures were part of an initiative to give the individuals a better quality of life, rather than institutionalizing them. She was also a professional working with quality improvements, behavioral and or sexual issues in IL, TN, KY and AL. She also served as the executive director of a nonprofit in FL supporting individuals who were profoundly disabled. Additionally, she was the executive director of the Disability Council in AL. Judi ended her career in OK as the CEO of a nonprofit, The Gatesway Foundation, supporting ID/DD both residential and in all phases of employment. She happens to also be my grandmother.

She started bringing me around those she worked with when I was a little girl. I owe many of the life lessons I’ve learned to those wonderful people. Most importantly, seeing a person for who they are, having patience with others and trying things another way when the first way didn't work.

She likes to tell a story about me when I was very little. She took me to work with her and I was playing with a large bouncy ball. The ball landed in the lap of an individual who was known for being very aggressive. My grandmother stood there somewhat holding her breath to see how the situation would play out. Being a naïve child, none the wiser, I toddled over to get my ball back, not thinking any different. I took my ball and kept playing without incident. It’s funny how the eyes of a child see all people the same. To me, I didn’t see a mean person with a disability, I just saw a person. I am thankful my grandmother gave me the opportunity to spend my life around this population because it has helped me see all people as people, not by their disability, color or another characteristic. Spending her career in this field, she has been impacted as well but the impact she has had on the industry and the work she has done in the field has had such an impact on the lives of these individuals. Anyone who knows her knows she is one of the most generous and compassionate people you will ever meet. That was thoroughly demonstrated in her work with disabilities over the years. She worked tirelessly to improve their quality of life and fight for them in all aspects.

She was determined to help them be a part of everyday life within the community. She wanted them to have a healthy, normal quality of life being an integrated part of society. I would watch her with amazement. She has a way of suggesting something to people without them realizing it was her idea. With her recent retirement, I asked her what most impacted her during her career working with disabilities.

“The thing that has impressed me the most is how tolerant and kind the individuals are of others with disabilities,” Myers said.

This is something I also saw firsthand. I spent many days working and volunteering at Gatesway from the age of 14 to 24. When you watch their interactions, you’re moved beyond words. They become such a family – they help each other, they look out for each other and they love each other. They are so quick to offer assistance to each other or voice concern for one another.

She continued on, “What I learned from my 50 years in the ID/DD field is the value the people feel about work. They want to work. They are so proud of their paycheck.”

Judi worked tirelessly to ensure these people had a chance to work and have a sense of accomplishment. Many could work out in the community with some supervision with wonderful partners such as Walmart and local movie theaters. Others worked in the vocational workshop via contract positions. These individuals would help assemble various parts or fold clean linens. They took such pride in their work and they proudly told you all about their job when you asked. They worked harder than many other adults I know. They didn’t complain or slack off. Work gave them a sense of purpose and pride.

Most of these individuals faced many obstacles but they never let that hold them back.

Judi said, “Another important learning experience for me was how they overcome mountains of obstacles while striving to become independent, or as independent as they can be. For some, it was learning to feed themselves. For many, it is living on their own and working in the community.”

While I was working at Gatesway as an occupational therapy aide, I saw this often. I would spend hours with clients working on simply blowing a pinwheel or lifting a hand to their mouth. They always kept trying. One of my favorite people served by Gatesway was David. David was born a healthy, non-disabled boy. When he was little, he was outside of his home and hit by a car. He is now in a wheelchair and has many side effects of a traumatic brain injury. The hardest part of David’s story, to me, was that he is somewhat stuck in this damaged body but still has so much of his prior knowledge and personality in there. He was very intelligent and receptive. Because of his brain injury, it was very hard for him to get words out clearly. We would often spend up to 10 minutes trying to communicate a single thought. He would tell me something and I would apologize and say, “David, I’m sorry. My ears aren’t working very well today. Try to tell me again.” He would never get angry or frustrated with me. He would just keep trying until I could understand what he was trying to say. We would make decorative sheets for his wheelchair so that he would have something nice to look at. I’d flip through magazines until he saw something he wanted to put on the sheet. His favorite things for me to cut out were flowers. They reminded him of when he was a little boy and he would plant flowers with his mom. David has one of the most lasting impacts on me of anyone in my life. He taught me so much about patience and perseverance.

When I was in high school, I spent many hours volunteering at Gatesway. I loved my time there. I always left feeling better than when I arrived. One of my former high school friends would always say she didn’t understand how I chose to spend my time around them. She said they were scary and freaked her out. Hearing that broke my heart. I longed for her and others to give them a chance and see beyond their disability. All too often, we are afraid of that which we do not understand. My grandmother echoes my sentiment. She hopes for a time where people don’t make immediate judgments.

She said, “I would like everyone to know that just because they have a disability, that does not define them. They have wants, needs, dreams, friends just like you and me. They can live great fulfilling lives, many just need more supports and services. Look beyond their disability and see the person.”

Helen Gates (left) and her friend Doris Barnes at the groundbreaking of Gatesway

My time spent around disabilities is so minimal compared to her 50 years. She would spend countless hours at the office working for improvements. Most weeks she worked fifty hours or more. She was almost always at the office before seven and often worked long after five. I asked her to reflect on her time in the industry and her feelings now that she is retired and not caught up in the tireless work. After 50 years in the industry, she has seen more than I can imagine. She is truly a voice for the voiceless.

“Now I can remember. I cry a little as I remember the mountain tops and the low valleys that my journey with disabilities has taken me, “recounted Judi.

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