Resilience by Joni Schmalzried

‘You can’t wait until life isn’t hard anymore before you decide to be happy.’ (Nightbirde)

 Wow. I heard that first thing one morning, had a good cry, then tried to get back to my work at hand.

Man with Down syndrome, wearing glasses, side hugging a woman wearing glasses while they smile at the camera.

Joni with her former student, Josh O’Neill.

Shortly after that (on the same day, in fact), I had the wonderful opportunity to spend time with one of my very first students from 1984 (he is no longer 5, and I am no longer 21). Later in the day, I spent time reflecting on both the quote and my student, as well as the hundreds who came after him.

This isn’t intended to be a ‘sappy’ piece for the newsletter and isn’t intended to portray people with disabilities as superheroes. I want to reflect on  resilience – falling off the horse time and time again but still getting back on and withstanding or recovering from difficult situations. I especially like the ELL (English Language Learners) definition of resilient…being able to return to an original shape after being pulled, stretched, bent, or pressed. During my career in the field of disability, I have encountered some of the most resilient people I have ever known.

Having a disability presents obstacles that many of us do not have to face – mentally, emotionally, educationally, socially, and physically. When I think about the students (and families) that I have known over the years, the barriers they sometimes faced seemed insurmountable. Jason who had Muscular Dystrophy and knew that his life span was limited. Sam, who had a brilliant mind, but no verbal language to share it with us. Jamal, who had a spinal cord injury at age 17 and had to learn to use a wheelchair, switches to communicate, and depend on others to support his daily need. The countless number of students who had both the desire and ability to work, with no one to hire them; the ability to live independently, but no safe and affordable housing to live in; the desire to get from point A to point B, but no way to get there. These were all individuals who embodied resilience – being bent and pushed but not losing shape in the long run.

What each of these students and families taught me, and should be a lesson to all of us, is that though having a disability can present adversity, can be painful and difficult at times, and can consume an inordinate amount of time – it is not the sum of a person. It does not pre-determine the entirety nor the outcome of a life.

For most of us, becoming resilient takes a lifetime. I know I am still working on it daily. For those born into barriers and challenges, resilience often becomes the fiber of their being, without having the luxury of ‘waiting until life isn’t hard anymore.’