How fast can you sew a glove?
Her name was Maryanne, she worked in what was then called a “sheltered workshop,” making gloves on an industrial sewing machine in hopes of qualifying for a real job in a local glove factory and achieving a degree of independence.
There were 10 or 12 other workshop members, most in their late teens or early twenties, most trying to master some skill, and all living with varying degrees of developmental disability.
I was a college student running the workshop with no prior training or experience simply because I needed a part-time job. The word “retarded” had not yet been excised from my lexicon and was still in common usage among people in the field in which I was temporarily employed. Its widespread use colored and distorted everyone’s perception, mine included, of the client population we were supposed to serve.
Maryanne was earning a few cents for each cotton glove she successfully sewed, but she would not qualify for a factory job – and much higher pay – until she reached a certain piece-rate that, as I recall, was close to a pair a minute. She was having a hard time getting there, but her spirit was consistently serene, there was a peaceful, almost saintly quality to her, and her sweet round face carried a nearly constant, beatific smile.
I made it my goal to become her savior, to coach her to that glove-a-minute threshold. She seemed to have good hand-eye coordination, she had good communication skills and this wasn’t rocket science. So I decided to show her how to sew faster.
That meant she first had to show me how the machine worked and the movements she made to stitch the perimeter of each hand and every finger. Once I had that figured out I started to show her how to speed up the process. She patiently watched as I ran the first glove through the needle. I made a mess of the pre-cut material and it took me nearly five minutes to sew.
Maryanne handed me another two halves and encouraged me to try again. I did better this time, sewing a pretty neat line, but it took even longer. For the next hour I tried to show Maryanne how to sew faster without coming within a minute of her average time.
Finally, again patiently, she started to show me how to do it, where her hands and fingers went as she moved the halves under the needle, how she stood and how she kept the thread straight.
In the end I never came close to her glove-making time and that triggered something of a personal, perceptual crisis. If Maryanne was “retarded” what did that make me? The more I sewed, the more frustrated, impatient and angry I became. Maryanne, meanwhile, maintained an even, hopeful and sweetly serene demeanor. She seemed wholly present and at peace while sewing gloves nearly twice as fast as me.
In the aftermath of the client abuse recently revealed at Sonoma Developmental Center, Maryanne has come frequently to mind.
We are still, it seems, insufficiently sensitive to the most vulnerable and invisible members of our community. It is still too easy to simply institutionalize, and then ignore, or refuse to respond, to their needs and rights as full members of the human family.
This is not the failing of SDC. This is the failing of us all.