21September

You Can Go to Italy, I’d Rather Visit Holland

The Gift of Working with Extraordinary People

You Can Go to Italy, I’d Rather Visit Holland


September is Direct Support Professionals month. We are grateful for all of those workers who care for extraordinary people who may need a little extra help. Thank you for all that you do!

Most people involved in the disability culture are familiar with the essay “Welcome to Holland.” The essay, written in 1987 by Emily Perl Kingsley in, the mother of a child with Down Syndrome, sheds light from the perspective of a parent whose child has special needs:

When you’re going to have a baby, it’s like planning a fabulous vacation trip to Italy. You buy a bunch of guide books and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum, the Sistine Chapel, Gondolas. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It’s all very exciting. After several months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, “Welcome to Holland!” “Holland?” you say. “What do you mean, Holland? I signed up for Italy. I’m supposed to be in Italy. All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy.” But there’s been a change in the flight plan. They’ve landed in Holland and there you must stay. The important thing is that they haven’t taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place full of pestilence, famine, and disease. It’s just a different place. So, you must go out and buy new guidebooks. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met. It’s just a different place. It’s slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you’ve been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around. You begin to notice that Holland has windmills. Holland has tulips. And Holland even has Rembrandts. But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy, and they’re all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life you will say, “Yes, that’s where I was supposed to go. That’s what I had planned.” And the pain of that experience will never, ever, ever, go away. The loss of that dream is a very significant loss. But if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things about Holland.

My perspective is not of a parent, but that of a support professional, by chance caught in this wonderfully unexpected experience. While I have worked directly with the people JF&CS supports, who happen to have developmental disabilities, strangers often approach me when we are out “in the community.” And who says "in the community" when they are not at work? Strangers come up to me, especially if the person I am working with has Down Syndrome or is in a wheelchair, and they tell me how lucky the person I am working with is to have me. I have been blessed many times, and apparently I have even been guaranteed a spot in heaven. I used to thank them awkwardly, before I knew better.

I remind myself that these strangers cannot possibly understand unless they have personally experienced it. People often say “I couldn’t do what you do.” They say that a lot. And I always think to myself, “How can you do anything else?” I just don’t get it. How is it possible that anything else is as wonderful as what I get to do every day? Since the first day I walked into a special needs classroom many years ago and met those wonderful children, my life was changed forever. I can never imagine doing anything else. How lucky am I?

I met with a mother the other day to discuss her adult son’s future. She told me that her son is lucky to have JF&CS in his life. I patted her and leaned in as if I was telling her a secret and said, “Actually, we are the lucky ones. We are lucky that you and he allow us to know him and to work with him. You have given us a gift, not the other way around.” Apparently parents of special needs people don’t hear this very much.

So, this is my take on “Welcome to Holland.” Everyone talks about Italy. Everyone says “You must visit Italy.” The truth is, I would rather visit Holland any day. What you don’t know is that when you visit Holland, your life changes. People who don’t want to visit shouldn’t. It is not a place for everyone. That’s okay. Holland is the world’s best kept secret. It’s a place where people learn bravery and courage.

So in the future, if you are out “in the community” and you see a worker supporting an individual who has a disability, don’t tell the worker that the person is lucky to have him or her. Tell the worker he or she is lucky to be with the person.

Written by Rena Harris, Posted in Developmental Disabilities Services

About the Author

Rena Harris

Rena is the Manager of Residential & Community Living Supports in Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities Services. The individuals receiving services in the program are supported to be an integral part of their communities. The staff assist the individuals with learning independent living skills so the lives they lead are safe, healthy and happy.