Dave Hingsburger is one of the most gifted wordsmiths I’ve ever come across. I wrote the piece below after watching him spin a magic web around a room full of Vancouver Island educators. Had I not been madly scribbling notes, I’d have sat as motionless as everyone else in the room. The man knows how to go straight for the heart.
That was nearly twenty years ago, but the stories still move me so I wanted to share them with you. Fortunately, Dave’s still writing from the same deep place. Now that I’ve found it, his Rolling Around in My Head blog is going to be a regular stop for me.
Proud of the whole package
No one could mistake David Hingsburger of Eastman, Quebec, [NB, now Toronto] for a thin person in thick clothing. He wears his girth proudly and says, “Inside every thin person is a fat person wanting a good meal.”
Speaking to educators on Vancouver Island, Hingsburger filled the gymnasium, not because his height and weight are off the end of the insurance schedules but because he tells a good story.
Addressing the topic of integrating children with disabilities, he set aside statistical studies and psychological research and brought us Rob and Sue and Nancy, clients whose differences he learned to look beyond. He wanted to impress on us that what we need most to teach children is pride. Pride in who they are—not in spite of but including their disabilities.
(A Seattle friend of mine who relies on crutches and a guide dog for mobility prefers “different abilities” to “disabilities.” Though Hingsburger always used the latter, his talk was about recognizing the former, an important distinction.)
He began by putting us at ease. Hingsburger’s weight is a disability. No one in the audience could ignore it. His quips let everyone laugh, but he was not self-deprecating. Rather, he celebrated the gloriously flawed human being inside the generous package.
The taste of freedom
Hingsburger has spent his career working with people with developmental disabilities. One of his successes was Rob. When Hingsburger had done all he could for him, he closed the file and handed him on to other people.
One day Rob called and invited him to his new apartment, on Saturday. Week days Hingsburger would have slotted him into a working hour, considering it a professional visit. Rob knew that. “I don’t want you to come as a case worker. I want you to come as a friend.”
Hingsburger went. After a tour of the apartment, he wanted to look in Rob’s refrigerator, to see if he could shop for himself. Though embarrassed, Rob agreed. The contents were reassuring, but in the freezing compartment he found packages of fish sticks. They were the same fish sticks Rob hated when he lived in an institution.
“Rob, fish sticks?”
“They’re the best.”
“Rob, they are the same fish sticks you hated.”
“No, Dave, they’re the best.”
“They’re the same.”
“Dave, I cook them when I want. I eat them when I want. They’re the best fish sticks ever.”
Rob understood the flavor of freedom.
A long walk with pies
Nancy was another of his clients. She had cerebral palsy and was among the first residents in a group home he helped establish. The neighbors brought up the usual NIMBY (not in my backyard) arguments, but the project was approved.
Placards with hate slogans greeted the residents when they moved into their new home. “It was the first time I was glad they couldn’t read,” said Hingsburger.
They had to be spirited in by the back door. Hingsburger realized the staff had made a mistake.
“We told our people to ignore rudeness and hatred. You can’t ignore hatred.”
The next door neighbor erected a six-foot fence. One day he came calling. “I can’t have sex with my wife since these atrocities moved in.”
Neighbours circulated a flyer. They invited everyone to a pot luck and meeting, everyone but residents of the group home.
The home’s staff met to decide how to respond to the threat. Nancy, one of the residents, stuck her head in the door. “We should bake them a pie.”
“Go back and watch TV,” Hingsburger said. “We’re having a meeting.”
Nancy disappeared. The staff deliberated.
She reappeared. “We should bake them a pie.”
After several interruptions, the staff agreed. Nancy could bake a pie. They would make it one of her independent learning goals, write it up with appropriate objectives and evaluation.
On the day of the pot luck, Nancy baked two apple pies. She insisted on carrying them herself. Staff accompanied her to the hall. The room was filled, the bake table on the other side. Nancy shuffled forward, a precarious and careful quarter inch at a time.
“By the time she was a third of the way across the room,” said Hingsburger, “everyone was rooting for her.”
She reached the table but lacked the coordination to set the pies down. Two embarrassed women rose from the other side and took the pies. “Thank you,” they said.
Nancy turned to leave. “Stay,” said one of the women. “Have a cup of coffee.”
Nancy’s voice rang out in the silent room. “No, thank you,” she said, “I wasn’t invited.”
She turned and walked out.
Hingsburger compared her proud and lonely walk to the courage of the young people in Selma, Alabama, on the first day of court-ordered integration. Hingsburger said, “When you walk with pride, they lose; you win.”
Canada is an acre freer
Sue became his client when her parents refused to work with the two thin consultants he sent first. He figured they would want a role model. They wanted someone who would understand.
Sue was fat and retarded. (Hingsburger eschews euphemisms.) When she climbed into his small car, there was no distance between them.
Her reward for weight loss was to be a diet soda, his treat. First time he picked her up at the high school, they teetered on a speed bump. Witnesses gathered. Hingsburger groaned. Nancy had to get out before they could drive on. Next time, he picked her up across the street.
He took her to a TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly) meeting. “TOPS meets in church basements,” he said. “They’re structurally sound.” They walked in together. “I’ve never seen a room so full of so few people.”
Sue’s progress was slow. One day he asked her to tell him something good about herself. She couldn’t think of anything.
He thought he would model what he was after. “Ask me,” he said. She did, and Hingsburger realized how difficult the question is. So he and her teachers and parents wrote a book of praise for her. Everything in it was something true about her. She carried it with her, referring to it until she began to believe there was something good about her.
Hingsburger moved on. Months later she called. “I’m scared,” she said.
“Of what?” he asked.
“I’m scared of you.” She wanted to invite him to graduation, but said, “I didn’t know if you’d come to something about me that wasn’t a meeting.”
At graduation he asked her what she wanted to do now. “I want to help people,” she said, “like you.”
Hingsburger knew her future was in a sheltered workshop. For years he and other professionals had worked to integrate her into the society of other children. Now they would pull her out and isolate her with others of similar disabilities.
Hingsburger did what any professional in that situation would do. He called a meeting. One of his colleagues had a suggestion. Why not let her do volunteer work?
She began helping in a home for seniors. She wheeled chairs to meals, helped with aerobics, cheered the residents. She did so well they fired her. Visitors thought she was staff.
He held another meeting, this time with staff of the nursing home. They agreed she would not wear a uniform and that she would wear a badge declaring she was a volunteer.
She was fired again. She could continue only if she agreed to arrive 15 minutes after staff and take her breaks and lunch fifteen minutes earlier than any of them. She was never to be in a common area with staff.
Hingsburger fumed but said, “I’ll talk with her.”
She insisted on going back under their rules. After years of teaching her integration, Hingsburger and his colleagues had to teach her to segregate herself.
One day she called him, so excited he could hardly understand her. One of the nurses had said good morning to her. She knew it represented a breakthrough. One person at least had decided to acknowledge her.
“Who changed it?” Hingsburger asked her.
She said it was the nurse. He pressed her again. She had other answers: staff, residents, him.
“No,” he said. “You did.
“She was like Rosa Parks,” Hingsburger said. “She did not go to the back of the bus.”
Hingsburger’s topic was children with disabilities, but his message was universal. “Be proud of who you are. Anyone who hurts you because you are different is wrong.”
The nursing home where Sue volunteered was on an acre of land. Hingsburger ended his talk by saying, “Because Sue was there and Sue was proud, Canada is an acre freer.”