InFocus advocate Paul Parker with Jenna Suits

InFocus promotes inclusive communities

InFocus, an advocacy program for people of varying abilities, began because of the need for all perspectives to be heard. The Department of Community and Therapeutic Recreation at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and The Arc of Greensboro in Greensboro, N.C., partnered to give individuals an opportunity to share their voices through digital photography and help citizens get “in focus” about the need for inclusive communities.

To date, more than 50 people have participated in an InFocus season, and well over a thousand have attended exhibits that feature photography and narratives derived from individual and group discussions about the photographs. InFocus continues to have an impact at the local, state, and national levels. Community conversations are planned so that this powerful work can lead to the ultimate goal of more welcoming, inclusive communities.

Paul Parker, an advocate from InFocus season one, provided insight on the importance of this initiative in a recent interview.

What was your initial thought about participating in InFocus?

Paul Parker with Jenna Suits

InFocus advocate Paul Parker shares a moment with Jenna Suits at Caribou Coffee in Greensboro, N.C. InFocus photo.

It sounded like something I would enjoy. The story of everyone’s lives could come forth. What we enjoy, how we balance things in life, our goals and our dreams. We want people to see through our eyes so that they can see who we are. A picture is worth a thousand words, and that’s how we’re trying to describe ourselves — what we can do, not what we cannot do. We’re trying to change minds about who we are.

One of your photographs shows a weekend evening at home enjoying pizza, a basketball game on television and a beer. Why is it important to you to be treated as an adult?

We are adults, and we should be treated like adults. We choose what we do, but we must maintain our health. When you drink alcohol or coffee, balance is the key thing. We all need to balance what is right and what is wrong.

Let’s talk about the group discussions. Was it helpful to discuss all of the key photos as a group? What did you learn from these discussions?

We are trying to make this world a better place for living. Everybody did a great job with photos. They were unique as they told about their lives through their photos. Everybody had a different take. Everyone talked about how we should be treated like adults. We’re older and should have a say in our lives.

Everyone had felt put down at some time. In high school, being called a certain word was very hard and not right. It was as if that life didn’t matter. All life is precious. I felt bullied. It was like a curse word. It puts us down. You just want to jump off that cliff and have your family and friends catch you. They (family and friends) know who we are. We stand up for each other and give each other a pat on the back. It’s not our disability that controls us.

Was there an assignment that was difficult for you?

Trying to tell about my life was difficult. My job is part-time right now. We need a better economy. I stay busy doing things with my family. I’m trying to do more with friends. Trying to change people’s minds about associating with people with disabilities is very hard. We need to prove to everyone that we can make a difference in this world. The world could use a facelift, but that would be called a “world lift!”!

Paul, you have been quoted as saying, “We all have a voice. What we say with that voice, we show through our pictures.” Why is it important to you to have a voice?

These are our stories. With photos, our voices are more powerful than we ever imagined. We can blow everybody’s minds away by who we are. I want my voice to be known and loved. I want people to see characteristics, like I’m sensitive and kind. I want people to see who we are.

The whole world will turn upside down by what we can do! Just like the Oscars. That’s their way of being famous, why shouldn’t we? The whole world is your oyster. Watch out world, here we come!

What should people know about making adults with a disability feel welcome?

If people can recognize who we are and know us in the community, that will make us feel welcome. Not just say hello, but also asking how I am and get to know who I am. Know the whole story about me before you do or say anything wrong. Once you know me, the right words will flow like a waterfall. Know what my purpose is in this life and what I’m trying to become. We are in this world for a reason, with our voice. In this community we are who we are and we are here to stay!

We all need to embrace what the community has and what we have, so we can converse with people in any group we’re in. We want to be a part of groups. We need to have anybody from Washington, D.C., and everywhere else to look at Apostrophe and our InFocus website to learn who we are. We want to be a part of this world. Instead of saying mean things, be uplifting!

Paul’s closing comments provide a powerful description of self-determination:

Reborn. To begin again means butterfly. We burst out of the cocoon. We know who we are. We know what the outcome can be. Don’t let other people tell you otherwise. We use our heads to begin life. Let us begin a new beginning like mayhem, in a good way, to express who we are.

Paul completed his high school education in 1998 and during his high school years played clarinet player in the marching and concert bands. His first job was as a food service technician in the hospital cafeteria. Now 35, Paul stays active in his community by working part time in a custodial position and volunteering.

He is an avid reader and regularly tutors elementary age students in a school-based reading program. He is also a volunteer at his church, serving as a lay reader during worship service. Remaining physically fit is important to Paul.  His workouts include exercise classes, swimming, and Zumba.

Paul schedules some form of a workout five days a week. He also enjoys spending time with his family, is a loyal Duke basketball fan and welcomes the opportunity to spend time with friends.

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