The Story of Roland
For many years I worked in a day program for adults with developmental and physical disabilities. The program provided a Vocational service to teach the participants job skills.Those who wanted to become employed in the community could obtain that goal.
For the ones who perhaps didn’t choose to work outside the center we procured work from area business’.The individuals were paid a piece rate for the work done in-house.
I cannot begin to tell you the fulfillment I felt working there. I watched people who had been so sheltered at home or had spent a large part of their lives institutionalized grow into the capable men and women they wanted to be. They took enormous pride in their accomplishments at the program. They earned a pay check for the first time in their lives.
I grew too. I learned perhaps more from all of them than I could ever possibly teach them. As much as I loved each and every one of the individuals there; I must admit there were a few who grabbed my heart and never let it go.
This is a story about one of them and the way he impacted my life forever. I will not use his real name for privacy reasons, but his story is a true account.
His name was Roland. He was a man, aged fifty-eight, who was classified at the time as “moderately disabled”.
Roland came lumbering up to me the first day I was brought to a work area to be introduced as the new Vocational Instructor. He came at me so fast I was a bit startled by him.
He appeared to be around six foot tall. It was obvious to me that he had some physical deformities. He stretched out his hand to me and said, Hi, I’m Roland! You’re pretty. Are you going to be my new teacher?” Roland’s hands were shaped like claws; fingers fused together on both his hands.
I shook his hand and noticed it was clammy. I never let my discomfort at taking his hand show on my face. Roland withdrew his hand after our handshake.
He lifted both his hands in front of him, “You can look at them if you want to. Most people stare at them at first. It’s ok. My feet are like this too. That’s why my shoes are funny looking.” He looked toward his feet and pointed.
I was taken a back at the gesture to have me take a look at his deformities in such a light hearted and honest way. I reached out and touched both his hands.
“Thank you Roland for letting me see them. That was a nice thing you just did.” He flashed me a big and toothless smile.
Roland’s deformities did not stop with only his hands and feet. His face was elongated and his features seemed stretched out; not in proportion to the size of his head. He had thick black hair and bushy black eyebrows. His looks could frighten someone if he came upon them unexpectedly.
But, with all that was wrong with him, it was that smile of his that captured my heart from the moment I met him.
Over time, I learned that Roland had a love for cigars and a good cup of brewed coffee. If he had those two things, he was pretty much happy in life.
I also learned from staff at the center that Roland was a head banger. “Don’t worry, Roland would never harm another person; no matter how upset he gets, “
“What do you do when he does the head banging behavior?” I asked her.
“We have to put him in a physical hold to prevent him doing any damage to himself until he calms down,” she replied.
I had been trained in the Preventative Intervention methods, but had never used one of the methods at the time. I had hopes that I would never have to either. It’s traumatizing both to the individual as well as the staff who have to use it. I understood the reason for it though. It is meant to “do no harm” to the person and also as protection for the staff person dealing with an outburst.
I had been working at the center for almost six months when Roland had an outburst. He apparently wanted a female participant to become his girlfriend. She had rejected him harshly by telling him he was too ugly to be her boyfriend. Roland’s feeling were terribly hurt by her statement. As is the case with many of the individuals there, he was unable to keep his emotions under control.
I found him outside the building banging his head against the brick wall. His face was contorted as he cried so hard his body shook. That pitiful deformed face, made more distorted by his sadness, was more than my heart could stand. I approached him quietly and gently put my hand on his shoulder.
“Roland, please. Please don’t do this to yourself.”
He turned quickly to face me and shouted, “I don’t want to be put into a hold! Let go of me!”
I had developed a deep and caring relationship with Roland. I didn’t want to break his trust in me by using an Intervention maneuver with him.He went back to his head banging behavior. I knew if I did nothing he would severely injure himself. He lifted his head from the wall for a second; I took the opportunity to place my hand on the wall at his head level.
“Roland, I can’t let you hurt yourself anymore. If you want to keep hitting your head on this wall then you will have to do it with my hand here.”
“Please move your hand. I don’t want to hit it with my head. I don’t want to hurt you.”
I refused to take my hand away from the brick wall.
“I won’t move it Roland. You may break my hand with your head, but that’s ok. I’ll wear a cast for awhile, but it will heal eventually. So go on if you want to; hit my hand Roland.”
Roland looked at me with tears still streaming down his face. “No, I’ll stop now.” He said.
“Good. I’m so glad you decided not to do this anymore. But if you ever try it again I will do the same thing.”
“I won’t do it anymore. I promise.”
He and I went to the cafeteria and I poured him a cup of coffee. We had a long talk about why he became upset. I offered him suggestions as to how to handle those kinds of feelings in the future without resorting to self harm. I continued to work at the center for thirteen years; Roland never did the headbanging behavior again. He’d come to me and ask to “have a talk.” We’d go for coffee and work out whatever problem he was having together.
I remember not long after that first experience with Roland, he began to grow a beard. I asked him why in the world he was growing a beard in the middle of a very hot summer.The truth was, I thought it made him look even more different to the people he came in contact with in the community. Of course I never said that to him.
"I know I’m ugly. I thought if I grew a beard it would hide more of my face. Maybe then Emily would like me for her boyfriend.”
My heart literally ached inside my chestas I fought to hold back tears. This gentle, kind man was trying to alter his appearance in order to get this woman to like him. I put my arms around Roland hugging him tightly. I put my hands on either side of that beautiful face of his.
“Roland, don’t change one thing about yourself to please her. You are good enough for any one just the way you are.”
He continued wearing the beard for several months though. That is, until he met another lady who told him he could be her boyfriend if he shaved off the beard. The two of them would sit outside during lunch. I’d look out at them and Roland would be smoking his cigar, while drinking a cup of coffee; talking to his new girlfriend.
I guess I was wrong about him being completely happy with just two of his passions!
For many years there would other situations with Roland that tugged at my heart or caused me to have to become creative in dealing with some of the things he wanted to talk about.
The year before I left the center to move to Canada, Roland fell and broke his hip while bathing at his Group Home. I meant to go and see him, but unfortunately Roland threw a blood clot that went to his heart while still in the hospital. He died before I could get there. I attended his funeral and wept until my eyes could shed no more tears. Roland still occupy’s a place in my heart and he always will.