It was truly frightening.
I'm just now getting my head around it.
Let me explain.
Several times a year I'm asked to do an abuse prevention workshop for people with disabilities. As part of that workshop we do a role play wherein Joe (who assists me in doing this workshop) plays a staff and in that role asks someone with a disability, "How was your day." The person with a disability responds, "I don't want to talk about it." Then the question is asked of the group, "What would a good staff do next?" The answer we are looking for is some version of, "The staff would say, 'That's OK you don't have to talk about it now. We can talk about it later if you want."
This role play is informative to me - it lets me know what kind of world that people with disabilities live in, how they see 'good' staff. I've had all sorts of responses to this question, "Put her in the side room," "Take supper away from him," "Lock him outside," "Don't let her use the phone," "Put her on the floor." Shocking, but a glimpse into how some staff use power in their reltionship to those in care. Disturbing, but not the point of this blog post.
Recently we did this role play and a teenaged woman with Down Syndrome volunteered to be in the role play along with Joe. She nodded that she understood her line, "I don't want to talk about it." So Joe said, "How was your day?" She responded, "Fine." We all laughed and I reminded her of her line, again after Joe delivered his line she said, "Fine."
I then asked her if she ever had a bad day, "No," she answered.
Already I was wary but I explained that this was just acting like she sees on television or the movies. Grudgingly she gave her line, "I don't want to talk about it." We all cheered. She smiled.
Later, at break she came to speak with me. Her eyes were full of purpose and her blond bob bounced as she strode up to me. She waited politely for someone else to finish talking to me and then she said, "I'd never act like that." I asked her what she meant. She said that she'd never be rude like in the role play.
I asked her if she ever got angry. She said, "No, I'm happy."
"All the time?"
"All the time."
"It's not polite to be angry. It's not nice to answer back." She spoke with the emphasis of a zealot.
"But what if someone is hurting you? Would you speak up then?"
"No, I'd understand."
"Would you tell your mom or dad if someone was hurting you?"
"You don't tell on people. You don't get people into trouble." This girl knew rules. Rules dominated how she thought.
I explained that this workshop we were doing was aimed at teaching her that if someone does something that makes her uncomfortable she needs to speak up and tell someone.
She shook her head. "I'm a good girl, I do what I'm told. I'm supposed to be polite. Not be a problem to people."
"If you were in a restaurant and they gave you the wrong order, would you tell them?"
"No, I'd eat what they gave me."
"It's nice. It's polite."
She was really scaring me now.
"But you are saying 'no' to me now, you are disagreeing with me."
Suddenly the realization hit her that she was actually speaking her mind. Her whole demeanor changed.
"Sorry," she said as tears sprung to her eyes.
"No, no, don't be sorry, it's good that you spoke up."
"It wasn't polite, I'm sorry, I shouldn't be a problem."
Now I'm kicking myself. I thought I had made a point that would further discussion, not end it.
During the rest of the workshop she never again volunteered for a role play, to assist in any way. She just sat with her hands in her lap and she smiled at me. That pasted on Down Syndrome smile that I understood for the first time (really) had nothing to do with Down Syndrome it had to do with being down trodden. She was entirely 'nice' for the rest of the time we were together.
She left the workshop by coming up to me and apologizing again. "I'm a good girl," she said as she walked away from me.
I never in my life thought that I would have to think about the politics of politeness. That children with disabilities, like this young woman with Down syndrome who grew up in the community, would be taught to be so ... so ... subservient. Her greatest fear was that she'd be a 'problem' to someone. Ummm. Well there are times she needs to be a problem. She needs to be vocal. She needs to disagree. She needs to stand against the wind.
Surely there is a balance between manners and assertion that we need to hit with people with disabilities. Surely parents, staff, teachers recognize that people with disabilities are already, by nature of their disability, vulnerable to preying others. Surely they shouldn't be made more vulnerable by being taught to 'be a good girl' at all times in all circumstances.
It is sheer common sense to teach people with disabilities to be who they are, find their own voice, determine their own boundaries. The world prefers 'cute, smiley, disabled people' in the same way they once preferred women to be 'gentle, docile and subservient.' Assertion is a skill - it needs to be taught, then encouraged, finally honoured.
I shake my head at my failure with her.
I get frustrated at my own inadequacies in situtations like these.
But I comfort myself by thinking, "At least I tried."
And maybe, maybe, one day, she'll think about what I said.
Maybe ... some parent, or teacher, or staff will read this ... and maybe ...
But I just don't know.