Janet St. Peter received SSI long-term federal disability when she was 43-years-old, though she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy from the day she was born way up by I-95’s final stop in Houlton. As an adult she found herself best suited for factory work in southern Maine. Through hard work Janet raised her son, James, bought a house, and even worked in management positions, but people’s ignorance of her physical disability caused her stress
and pain. “When I told people that I had cerebral palsy they would respond ‘but you don’t look retarded.’” Of course this common misconception is far from the truth of what CP is.
“It is brain damage from birth,” Janet explains to us. “I have a lot of trouble walking. I can’t do stairs. I can’t even get off a curb, my balance is so shaky.” This brain damage Janet refers to is of the cerebrum which controls our motor skills and actions like speech, not to be confused with the person’s ability for complex thought. While Janet’s speech is slightly
slurred and slowed, every other attribute in the way she communicates is fully functional. Still people’s misconceptions caused them to treat Janet inhumanely. “My coworkers didn’t accept me. I was an outsider. Some workers refused to work with me as their superior.”
The stress of dealing with her disability’s increasing physical limitations, and the intolerance of her coworkers took its toll. “I had to go to the hospital,” Janet tells us. “It’s been my home away from home.” She applied for disability and was forced to stop working. “My body just
couldn’t do it anymore.”
Even with the disability, she could no longer afford her Gorham house on rt. 202, and with her son unable to help, she decided to sell it in 2003. “It was on the market only 9 days before it sold,” Janet remembers. “Three months later the market crashed.” Fortuitous, considering she had absolutely no other options at her disposal. From there Janet applied for housing and waited 2 years before she received it. “I was living in a room in someone’s home. I shared a bathroom and had no kitchen. It was hairy there for a while.”
Then Janet was offered a unit in Avesta’s Unity Gardens in Windham. She lives on the first floor with easy access to her apartment. “I don’t know where I would be without housing. This is a safe environment,” Janet says. “Eventually I know I’ll be in a wheelchair. There’s no question.” Janet is knowledgeable and prepared for her likely prognosis. She goes into Portland once a month for her doctor’s appointments, for which she has to pay $50
dollars for transportation. “Other than that, I stay right here. And that’s the way I like it.” She has hard days, but Janet also has two important passions that continue to keep her happy.
“I read my bible to study for meetings.” A Jehovah’s Witness, Janet’s faith is devout. Her apartment is very plain with almost no photographs or decorations of any kind. She believes in spreading the word, and if she feels up to it, she loves to attend meetings.
Janet’s greatest love and best friend, her grandson James, comes to stay with her every Friday. “I fix supper (for my son and grandson), watch James ride his bike, play ball with him.” The three of them watch movies and Janet tries to answer James’s tough questions. “One day he came home and told me a girl at school said ‘God is dead,’” Janet chuckles. “James was very angry about that. But he’s so smart. I am very careful about what I say to him because his mother doesn’t want me to influence (him religiously) too much.”
Janet’s life is limited by her disability. There is no doubt that she would like to be able enough to be James’s primary guardian, but like so many others with disabilities, Janet has learned to make the best life possible for herself. She doesn’t consider herself brave, or inspirational, and to describe her as such might be a disservice to who she really is. Janet is a woman who has been given a chance. Her goals and passions are modest and noble. Right now we face a political climate that threatens the same goals and passions that so many others with disabilities hold. She is not so much a hero as she is a reminder that people like her live among us, and to view them in ignorance and neglect their basic human rights (especially their right to the pursuit of happiness) is at the very best irresponsible, and is the exact opposite of what makes the state of Maine such an amazing place to call home.
Janet St. Peter
Resident, Unity Gardens