Photo Essay: Berkeley youth living with disabilities

Janelle Santos/Courtesy

Too often, society defines people by their appearance. For example, when some see a person in a wheelchair, they see only that. Unfortunately, this can lead to people with a disability being instantly defined by their inabilities; they are assumed to be incapable of experiencing certain aspects of life like everyone else. Instead, if we took a little time to connect with people who we define to be different than ourselves, we can create a more diverse circle of genuine relationships and live more well-rounded, fulfilling lives.

I had the opportunity to photograph the beautiful people of the Berkeley Youth Living with Disabilities, BUILD house, a nonprofit organization and the only intermediate care facility in the East Bay that cares for and supports the needs of children with disabilities such as cerebral palsy, autism, and other severe developmental and behavioral problems.

None of the residents of the six-bed home are able to speak comprehensibly, and some are deaf, but through spending a few hours with them, I discovered a little bit about their personalities. I also met Racquel, the executive director of the home, who — despite daily struggles — compassionately and patiently gives her care and attention to each and every one of the people living in the home. I was able to see exactly what Racquel meant when she said that it truly takes a special type of person to care for these youth.

“You have to have a lot of patience and compassion and an understanding even though most of these children can’t really verbalize what it is that they want. It’s kind of having the patience and going down that list but still having a conversation with them even if they’re not able to speak back.”



“Lewis is blind — but it’s not just about leading,” Racquel said.



I observed a range of fluctuating emotions and behaviors during my time visiting the home. I felt their pain as they cried and shouted.


I felt their joy and happiness as they laughed and smiled.



And Lily was the most comfortable around the camera, she flashed a smile almost every time I approached her.






Lukas likes to look through magazines, pull out the perfume samples and smell them.


Dave likes Vogue — he enjoys going through it and ripping out the pages.


I asked Racquel what she enjoyed most about her job. “Them. Just the kids because they’re all really fun. You have to love this. It’s not like working at a bank or retail. It’s the little steps — getting Izzy to hold her cup and drink by herself or taking a few spoonfuls.”

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