Breaking Down Communication Barriers to Bond

By Brennan Lee, Creighton University Student

Each spring and fall break, student groups from Creighton University’s John P. Schlegel, SJ, Center for Service and Justice (SCSJ) spend a week at Bethphage Village in Axtell, Nebraska. Brennan Lee, one of the students who visited Axtell this March, reflects on his experience. 

As you approach Axtell, a small town thirty minutes outside of Kearney, Nebraska, you’re met with large, open fields and long, straight roads as far as the eye can see. Irrigation systems stand tall like statues dotting the landscape.

Our drive to Mosaic was windy and cold, and we didn’t really know what to expect as we pulled into this community of fewer than 1,000 people. However, upon arriving, we were immediately met with warmth and love. Jim [Fields, community relations officer], our host site contact, exuded energy, and I could tell right away I was entering a home. I was excited.

On the first day, I was nervous to meet the people Mosaic serves. I wondered, “How do I connect with people who communicate differently?” I knew this would be my biggest challenge. I’ve never lived in a community with differently abled people before.

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, inch by inch, 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 felt like a failure afterward because I thought I had failed to make a connection. I was disappointed about not knowing how to react.

Over 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, I used my left hand and squeezed his arm. Since Eric is nonverbal, I realized his mode of communication was touch. Grabbing people’s arms is his 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.

In our society, verbal communication is taken for granted. We judge people based on their accents, speech and vocabulary. We make assumptions about where they’re from, their social class, and even their emotions—nervousness, excitement, confidence. But what happens when we take away verbal communication?

Eric pushed me outside of my comfort zone. I learned how to communicate with him through touch. Even though he doesn’t speak, I learned that he can very much understand. I learned how to pick out idiosyncrasies that are unique to him and used my experience to interpret his feelings, emotions, opinions and desires.

When Eric grabbed my arm, I grabbed him back. He would always hold on tighter when I first saw him, but after talking a bit and squeezing his arm, he would eventually loosen his grip.

I continued to 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 Mosaic’s staff members. “Say hi, Eric!” I said. He grinned wide and started to laugh. This was the first time I made him smile. This was the moment I realized that I had succeeded in connecting with Eric.

We met in the middle to form a relationship and both learned how to communicate with each other.

As humans, we are more similar than different. At our foundational level, we value respect. We value love and understanding. We crave recognition, even if it’s a simple, “Hello.”

I learned from Eric; I learned from my time at Axtell. I’m grateful.

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