Hidden Potential In Plain Sight

By Jennifer Szweda Jordan

In Partnership With All-Abilities Media

Like many people in 2020, Carla B. got on Zoom for the first time.

She’s a resident of the Emmaus Community of Pittsburgh. And during the pandemic, she watched closely the community’s online dance parties, craft get-togethers, and streaming religious services. She watched intently, rarely taking part in the activity. And Carla didn’t put down the iPad when the Zoom sessions were done.

She learned how to use the device’s camera. For hours on end she took photos of herself and her world from different angles and edited the images with a variety of filters.

As an Emmaus employee, I’ve known and supported Carla for years. And yet I was surprised by her ability to use a camera–and disappointed it hadn’t occurred to me before to put one in her hands. Carla’s definitely what you’d call a visual learner. She studies people’s faces and expressions until a staff person taps her shoulder to give up the stare–which she quickly does. Carla also closely observes everything happening in her home. For example, almost every time I misplace my phone, which happens a lot, she can tell me exactly where it is. “It’s right here!,” she tells me, a little exasperated. (I mean, I’m supposed to be supporting her, right?)

I’m disappointed in myself that it never occurred to me to ask Carla if she might like to use a camera. But I also love that she led, on her own terms. She took agency. And the results are impressive. Her framing is often right on. She’s stealthy and quiet like a press photographer. It’s an incredible creative pastime for her. And there’s more to it. Documenting one’s life provides safety. Carla’s extensive photo archive includes practically all of her Emmaus staff. When I arrived to see an empty car garage one day, and asked who had the house car, she grabbed her iPad. She scrolled through the images and showed me. Some agencies have put cameras in homes to monitor caregivers and protect people with disabilities. If this sounds too Big Brother, consider that people with intellectual disabilities are among the most vulnerable in our world-facing high risks of financial, sexual, psychological and physical abuse.

I talked about Carla’s photography to someone on a board that was evaluating wide use of cameras in homes, she said, “Wow, we’ve been looking at this in such an ableist way–that we would decide where cameras go, but not considering getting them in the hands of those with disabilities.” In the last year, television stations showed a video of a group home staff member slapping a resident. The person was, obviously, fired. I was curious who took the video.

It’s admittedly uncomfortable that Carla’s empowered herself to capture what she sees and share it. I mean, I read George Orwell’s 1984. But this is not that. Once I was roasting three peppers on open flames on the stovetop in her kitchen when she captured a colorful and technically great image. I wondered if it looked like I was doing something dangerous. And I loved that it gave me pause. I want to continually grow in my skills as a direct support professional, and as a human. Carla’s helping–showing her previously hidden potential and delighting the eye. Where else might I lack vision?

I hope you enjoy the photos on these pages. And that you take the time to sit with the people in your life, to support their growing potential, and to explore your interests, too.

Story Credits

Author: Jennifer Szweda Jordan
Photographs: Carla B.
Web Producer: Will Halim

Disclaimer: the narrative expressed in the article is solely those of the author(s).
However, 
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