Axtell, a small town thirty-minutes out from Kearney, Nebraska—large, open fields—long-straight roads as far as the eyes can see. Here, irrigation systems stand tall like prominent statues of the land. With a population of fewer than 1,000 people, this place easily felt like family. The drive to MOSAIC at Bethphage Village was windy and cold, and our group didn’t really know what to expect. But after arriving, we were immediately met with warmth and love. Jim, our host site contact, had an aura of energy around him. That was the first thing I noticed about him. I could immediately tell I was entering his home. This made me excited.
However, this excitement was not met without challenge. On the first day, I was nervous. Many of the residents at MOSAIC experience mental and physical challenges. Communication is such a huge part of forming relationships. How do I connect with people that cannot talk or cannot see, or both? I knew this was my biggest challenge. I’ve never lived in a community with differently abled people before, and I was nervous about how I could break past these barriers.
I think the person that brought me out of my shell was Eric. Eric loves to grab onto your hand and squeeze your fingers. Every time I was in reaching distance, I knew Eric would slowly extend his arms until finally connecting with your arm or t-shirt. This was unexpected at first, and I honestly did not know how to react. I remember saying “hi” and “how are you.” But when Eric wouldn’t let go, all I could do was stand there. I remember feeling like a failure afterward because I thought I had failed to make a connection with Eric. I was disappointed about not knowing how to react.
The next couple of days, I met Eric again. I was more prepared because I knew Eric would reach his hand out again and grab ahold of my arm. After he grabbed my forearm arm, I used my left hand and squeezed his arm. Since Eric was a nonverbal resident, I realized that his mode of communication was through touch. Grabbing people’s arms is a way to say: “Hi” or “I’m here” or “It’s good to see you again.” This is how I began to talk to Eric.
I think in our society, verbal communication is really taken for granted. We judge people based on their accents, word choice, and speed. We make assumptions about where you’re from, social class, and even emotions—nervousness, excitement, confidence. But what happens when we take these assumptions away? It is because of Eric that I was pushed outside of my comfort zone. I learned how to communicate with him through touch. Even though Eric cannot speak, I learned that he can very much understand. I learned how to pick-out the idiosyncrasies unique to him.
When Eric grabbed my arm, I grabbed him back. He always grabs harder in the beginning, after talking to him for a bit and squeezing his arm, he eventually loosens his grip. He will even let go of you, once you give him the attention he wanted. I talked to him. I asked him, “how’s it going, dude?” One time, I grabbed his arm and raised it above his head and shook it left and right in the air at one of the staff members. “Say hi, Eric!” I said. He grinned the widest at this moment and started to laugh. This was the moment when I realized that I have succeeded in connecting with Eric.
We both met each other in the middle to form a relationship. We both learned how to communicate with each other. Eric didn’t give up on me when I didn’t know how to react the very first time he grabbed my arm. And I slowly learned patterns in his behaviors that signified his emotional state. Communication is important to form strong relationships and communication goes both ways.
As humans, we are more similar than different. At the foundational level, we value respect. We value love and understanding. We crave recognition, even if it’s a simple “hello.” These essential values are not only reserved for people who are verbal—but for all people, for people like Eric.