Monday, March 29, 2010
Change Begins: You Tube 4
(if you cannot play here, search Hingsburger on YouTube and then select the video titled Change Begins)
(Transcription by Tessa.)
Note: If you've been watching all the videos you will note that I'm telling stories in chronological order starting at my first job, this story is the second told from my second job, next story will be from my third job. It's kind of a way of making sense of my career, and my growth, to me - and hopefully it will mean something to you along the way.
I was soon to leave the institution. I had received a job offer in the community and was about to move to community services where I would spend the rest of my career. And as I was driving to work this particular evening, it was to be an evening that would have profound effect on my career, and certainly on the latter portion of my career. It was a very dark night, and it was very cold. I had moved to Ontario from British Columbia where winter was wet, and here winter was white and it was very white and very very cold.
As I pulled into the institution, I looked at it for the first time with different kind of eyes because it was a dark night and it was, it was warm lights that come out through the wards and I saw people moving behind, and it did seem an odd kind of ‘home’, but I was wrong, and I was proved forever wrong that evening. Because I walked onto the ward, and it was shift change and there were all sorts of things happening and people were communicating what was happening during the day and what was expected to happen during the evening. It was least favourite of the shift rotations because there was a staff there who frightened me.
She was a big, brassy, bully of a woman and she ruled the ward with fear. She was not in management and I doubt would ever be, but nonetheless, she had managed that ward. And working with her was very very difficult because one tip-toed around her mood and one did everything one could just to make sure that she was happy because if she was happy, then we were happy. And if we were frightened of her, one can only imagine how the people with disabilities on the ward truly felt about her because I think in many ways, she just hated them.
Well, it had gone actually, fairly quietly that whole shift and people were in bed as they should be. And the way the ward was constructed, cause it was a co-ed ward, there was two big bedrooms at the back of the ward, the males on one side, females on the other.
I was in the office doing a little bit of paper work when I heard this incredible scream, so I came out of the office and I came around to see what had happened. And I noticed a woman whose name was Debbie and she was being pulled along by her hair by her hair by this staff who was furious, and there was fury written all over her face and all over her body.
And this was Debbie! And Debbie was a woman with a disability that I truly liked. I like her because she... she had this incredible back bone. She hadn’t been bowed by institutionalization. She hadn’t let the captivity of body take over her mind in any way. She stood toe to toe with us as staff, and she refused to see us as her superiors – she saw us as her equals. And she wasn’t a behavior problem I any way. I mean, she didn’t throw tantrums or break things or cause all sorts of problem, she was just resolutely our equals. She was just an astonishing person and needless to say, the staff hated her, or this particular staff hated her.
I didn’t know they, where they were going because the time out room was in the other direction. They were headed over towards the door, and the door was on the side of the word and it was locked and it was almost always locked. And the door lead out only into this little play ground and it was a playground that was fenced off and if you went out there you couldn’t leave the area, because the fence was tall and it was locked.
And the door itself was locked and when they got to the door, the staff unlocked the door and just, just threw Debbie out And it was cold, it was really really cold out there. And I saw the staff pull the door back and lock the door, and Debbie was on the other side and it was cold. It was really really cold and all she was wearing was this, this nightdress and she had bare feet. I approached the staff and I said, “You can’t do this. I mean, it’s cold outside. You have to let her back in!”
I was told very quickly and very firmly that I needed to just back off. Because this was none of my business, and this woman Debbie – she was, she was going to learn her place. And what, what lesson do you learn, just standing outside in the cold. I mean what lesson do you learn about yourself? You might learn lessons about the world, and you might learn lessons about the staff but you certainly learn nothing about yourself when you are standing in the cold and you are freezing and the door is locked and there is an angry woman on the other side refusing to let you in.
And I begged her, I begged her to let her in and she was just furious now with me for questioning her. I didn’t know what had happened and I didn’t know why Debbie deserved this. Well, may not, but I didn’t think that anything deserved being locked out in the cold when you only had a nightgown, and you only had bare feet. Eventually the door was unlocked, and I tell myself and it’s probably not true, that maybe my protest made that a little less long than it would have been if I hadn’t been there.
You should have seen Debbie cause she walked by me, and her back – it was just rod straight. I was cheering inside because she walked with such incredible dignity that she showed up this fury and this bully of a woman.
I couldn’t understand why everybody acted like nothing was happening, like the other staff, they didn’t do anything. These were good people! These were good people but I could see when I looked at these good people – they were afraid. They were afraid of the staff, they were afraid of her violence, and they were afraid of protest and losing their jobs or whatever might happen if one did something, and stood up. It was horrible. And I went home that evening and I found it very difficult sleeping because I had to sort of face that this was my profession and this was what I had chosen to do and this is what happens in places like this.
I went to work the next day and I had made the decision that I was going to report this. So I did. I chose one of the supervisors who I truly trusted, and I think that is what made this so difficult. We sat down together in a private room and I described to her what had happened the evening before, and I was clearly very upset.
She was understanding at first and she told me that these things happen in places like this and that I needed to have a thicker skin if I was going to survive in human service. And then... her voice went cold…as cold as it had been the evening before. And she told me that I was never to make this kind of report again and that I was never, ever, EVER to bring this to her attention again or I would be in significant trouble.
Well thank heavens I was going to be leaving that job, and when I left the institution, I left very very troubled. And over the next many years in Human Services, I have to say that is not the only act of violence that I witnessed, against people with disabilities. And in the first instance, in the institution, I spoke up but in many instances, I did not. I was part of the silent group that saw what happened and did little about it.
Then years later, decades later, I was in a hospital and I was facing a catastrophic illness and I was in the recovery part, and I knew I was going to be ok and I was thinking about my career and what I had yet to do, and I remembered Debbie. And I remembered the debt that I owed to her for not somehow, somehow making that whole thing better, and being more firmly on her side. And all of the other people with disabilities that I had let down over the course of the years that I had let down because of silence, or inaction or simply turning away. And I just didn’t want to do that anymore and I decided that what I wanted to do was really look at the issues that really made people with disabilities vulnerable in Human Services. The fact that staff have absolutely almost unchecked power in their relationship to people with disabilities and that good staff, good staff feel disempowered and feel somehow that their voices are going to lead to them being in trouble, that THEY will be abused by the system if they raise the issue of abuse TO the system.
And then the fact that the system itself is loath to change, that the system itself would rather have abuse occur within it, than to deal publically with the issue of abuse. So for this to happen to people who are in care is a tragedy, but for change not to happen is a willful decision. So I decided that what I wanted to do was spend the rest of my career dealing with abuse as an issue. That is what I have been dealing with for the last three years.
It was just today that I sat down to write the opening of a book that will document a three-years journey here at Vita Community Services regarding what we have done to confront the issue of abuse within the organization and to radically alter the organization to make it a safe haven for people with disabilities to live in. And I am proud of that work, and I am proud of what I am about to document, and I am proud of the fact that there were people who were willing to take a chance to make these changes.
So thus began the writing today.