Monday, May 16, 2011

The Woman Who Made Me Cry

As she rose from her seat and advanced to the podium to give a lunchtime speech, I remembered him, I remembered tears, both his and mine.

As a result of the new legislation requiring that all people with disabilities in Ontario be trained in abuse prevention skills, I've been travelling the province's length and breadth. In doing some statistics for work, I discovered that in the last few months alone I'd trained 410 people with disabilities and 336 staff in the art of abuse prevention. It's been a somewhat overwhelming experience. At times I find myself weary of the 'all abuse, all the time' existence. Even though it's about 'prevention' it's also about 'abuse' ... but I refuse to whine, this is what I've always wanted, the mandatory training of people with disabilities in safety skills. I'm thrilled to be a small part of the process. I was thankful that, years ago, I had been asked to create an abuse prevention class for people with disabilities; that I had taught abuse prevention for over 20 years; that I had experienced training trainers at Vita; that I had the great luck of being in the right place at the right time.

I watched her place her notes carefully on the podium and ready herself to begin. I wondered if she felt my gaze on her and if she noticed the wetness around my eyes. Now, the memory of him had me fully in its grip.

He had come in with about 40 others, for an abuse prevention class. He was maybe a year or two older than I was; he looked around the classroom warily. I knew that he was experiencing the momentary panic of a man whose experience with learning wasn't good, whose expectations of himself were low. He sat down and wiped sweat from his brow. It's because I know his history with education to be a painful one that I designed the class to burst into high energy with yelling; with loud raucous laughter. I wanted a beginning that said 'this isn't your typical class, this isn't desks in straight rows, this isn't learn through listening, this is something different.' His expression of relaxed laughter moments after the class began was reward enough for me.

But it was nowhere near the end of the story.

Much later in the class, it was time to teach about body parts. This is strategically placed well into the curriculum so that those attending will have learned something about being in the class - they are safe here. Many attending will have been victimized; many will have experienced punishment regarding sexuality. In order to learn, they needed first to experience a sense that they would be respectfully cared for here in this place, here with this teacher. I always tense up when we get to 'body parts' as many of those attending, those in their fifties and sixties, will have never learned the words, and if they have, never been allowed to speak them. These words, misunderstood as 'the language of sexuality', are more correctly considered, 'the language of power'. I know that, and soon those attending would too.

We begin with a coin toss to see if we will do the male body or female body first. This time it was men first. Joe stands beside the flip chart with an outline of the body and the class has to fill in the parts that are missing. We always start with the face; get people comfortable with the process. Joe draws on the parts and I make fun of his drawing. The laughter breaks the tension and takes the focus off the body and on to something safe - Joe isn't very good at drawing.

The male body was nearly done and, predictably, the genitals are the last needing to be identified. Someone called out, 'He needs a vagina!' There was quiet as they all waited. This mistake isn't because the person who spoke had a disability and is incompetent, which is what a police officer might think, it's because the person who spoke had a disability and thereby had been purposely denied education. 'That's right, vagina is a word for a private part of a woman's body, does anyone know the name for the male part.' This is a class about being 'right' not being 'wrong'. The identification of the male 'part' as a 'vagina' was more right than wrong, of course, and that needs to be respected.

Finally, someone said, 'I think the word is 'dick''. Everyone howled with laughter, and so did I, because, simply, it was funny. 'That's right too, that's a slang word, does anyone know what a doctor would call that part?' Another voice, very quiet, said, 'penis'. Joe then drew the penis on the body. I made a joke, Everyone laughed until they were exhausted from it. I saw the man who had looked anxious at entering staring at the drawing. I had Joe review all the parts he had drawn onto the body. I saw the man lean forward, listening hard. When Joe said 'penis' while pointing to what he had drawn, the man said the word silently along with him. Then he sat back and started to cry.

We moved on through the class and the fellow collected himself and participated as we did the female body. The group learned, the group grew as people. It is such an honour to do this work. We finished with the 'pledge of personal power' and it was over. They were milling about, chatting to each other as they readied to go. He, the man who had come through the door with hesitation, hesitated again. He came back to me, sitting in my wheelchair and said quietly, 'I have waited all my life to learn about my body. Thank you.' Then he turned and left. I kept it together only until I got in the car.

I cried myself out. Joe kept wiping his face but Joe never admits to crying. I kept feeling this sense of wonder, underpinned by a sense of outrage. Wonder at the fact that I get to do this work. Outrage that it has to be done. Can you imagine having others deny you even the basic language for your body? Can you imagine being only at the receiving end of decision making? Can you imagine having your competence diminished, not by disability, but by the power of others?

But it's different now.

And it's different, ultimately, because of the courage of just one woman.

The woman speaking.

True, many have worked on what became a reality: legislation that would change the world for people with disabilities. Legislation that would give people with disabilities the dignity of knowing about both bodies and boundaries. Legislation that would decrease the power gap between those who give and those who get care.

Legislation that would give all abusers pause.

Legislation brought into being by Minister Madeleine Meilleur.

She was the woman at the podium.

I never, ever, dreamed that I would desperately want to speak to the Minister, but I did that day. When she was done and lunch was over, I spoke with a fellow sitting at her table. I asked if he would introduce me to her. He readily agreed. As she came towards me my heart was in my chest, it was wrongly placed, I wanted it to be in my words. I did to her what others do to me when I speak. I began without context. I started to tell her that I wanted to thank her for what she had done, for the courage that she had had, for the legislation that had passed into law. She quickly asked a question to clarify what I was speaking about, this was a bright woman with an incisive mind, and clarification done, I continued.

This legislation, I believe, is groundbreaking and I wanted her to know that I appreciated what it did and what it would continue to do. I wanted to tell her of the man who has waited all these years to learn about his body, to have the dignity of language, to have his adulthood respected. I wanted her to know that her work would fundamentally alter the experience of thousands upon thousands of people with disabilities. I wanted her to know of this man. But there wasn't time. There was only time to say 'Thank you' and to express, quickly, that her work was appreciated. I could tell by her eyes that it mattered to her to hear what I had to say.

I left the luncheon and drove my wheelchair into an Ontario that I am so incredibly proud to live in.


bookselves said...

Dave - I love this and all of your posts. But the exercise you describe gave me pause, because it's only accurate for cisgendered people. I wonder if there is a way to teach language about body parts while being inclusive of trans and intersex people? There are, after all, men out there with vaginas. Men with disabilities who have vaginas, even.

Kate said...

How wonderful Dave...I love that that passed... I wish we could have something like that here!

Belinda said...

What a powerful and deeply moving piece of writing.

Anonymous said...

The wheeliecrone says -
Dave, i am weeping. Your writing is so powerful that I felt that I was there with you, remembering the man who had never been taught anything about himself.
Thank you, Dave. And thank you, Minister Meilleur.

Anonymous said...

Similar to bookselves ... I love this post. Your anecdote is an important one for me to read: it is shocking and tragic that there is still a population that is so profoundly excluded that they never even have the opportunity to learn about their own bodies.

But bookselves has an important point. It is similar to how the exclusion of people with intellectual disabilities (or other disabilities) from dialogue on sexuality has probably a disproportionate impact on people who are gay/lesbian/bisexual than it does on people who are straight. All are denied the right to understand their own sexuality, but people who are GLB have fewer alternate options for learning about sexuality via mainstream media, ordinary conversation, etc.

People who are transsexual but who are excluded from opportunities to learn about their own body have less opportunity to express or explain their actual gender identity. Transsexual people who finally learn the word associated with their own current genitals, and the genitals they wish they had ... may still have difficulty figuring out how to put their identity into words if they receive the message that people with one set of genitals are automatically men and people with the other set are automatically women ... it can take a lot of courage to receive this message and still be able to say, "But that's not how I experience my body and gender identity".

Things probably get even more complicated for people who are intersex, and for people whose gender identity may fall outside of the binary system of gender altogether (ie people who feel that neither the label "man" nor the label "woman" adequately captures the complexity and/or fluidty of their gender identity).

I'm not sure how this could be resolved. When you're talking with a group where even the very basic vocabulary for even the most mainstream experiences of sex/gender is lacking, there's a natural limit to how much in the way of new concepts they could process all at once--even if they don't have intellectual disabilities.

theknapper said...

Dave, I think you have your next project, tho I'm sure it's been on your mind.

kitten said...

dear dave,

i have a cousin, e. e. is developmentally delayed due to brain injury in utero, her mother was in a very bad car accident at 7 months pregnant, and e. is just not up to speed as far as her age goes, and never will be.

oh, she finished high school, and went to training after that, and can hold a basic secretarial-type job. she got married to a man with disability due to being hit by a car at a young age (his emotional/mental age is below average also, just a nice guy.). they have a daughter who is excelling at school (because car accidents are not hereditary) and her school understands her home life, so she's able to get tutoring if she has difficulties.

but e. when e. left home to go to the training college (one of the very few in the US who will take students who have a certificate of completion rather than a diploma) she stayed with another aunt.

e. got a bad case of constipation, and didnt know the words for a bowel movement. she only knew "boom-boom". my aunt made her a set of medical cards and gave her a lesson much like you describe. (my aunt is a teacher.)

i am glad there is the legislation now in canada to teach people with disability what their bodies are, and tis overdue for that legislation in the united states.


Nathan Dawthorne said...

Dave, Could you email a link to this new legislation. I've done a search online and turned up nil! Thanks.

Kris S. said...

LOVE THIS. Forwarded it to everyone who has helped with the Healthy Relationships training a bunch of us here in central Michigan pulled together after you inspired us several years ago.

Anonymous said...

I live in New York state and we've been in turmoil since the newspaper found out about the abuse happening within the system. All of us who work in services here knew about abuse, witnessed it and did nothing about it, were subtly encourged to ignore it. But when the NEWSPAPER reported it, now there is action. We need legislation to make us do the right thing because it is easier to do the wrong thing: nothing.

Louna said...

Meilleur... What a good family name for someone who is changing the world... (For those who don't know French, it means "better" in that language).

Sabrina said...

Hi Dave!
I read this and tears streamed down my face. What a wonderful thing it is to finally see progress in this field. I currently work with Deaf/Blind adults and prior worked as an instructor for a DSW program. I used your program on stopping abuse in the DSW field in my classes and just have to say thank you! You are an amazing man and speaker! We too were so happy to hear about the Bill and what the Minister has done! If you are ever in the Brantford area it would be a great honour to meet you!
Sabrina Jesso
Program Supervisor
Lions McInnes House
Brantford, ON

sandi said...

Dave, you are a good writer. I loved this story and loved it's message. Thank you for doing this work.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Hi, I am so sorry to be so long in getting back to you, I am on the road so I have 'stacked up' posts which automatically appear on the blog. This makes it look like I'm here every day, but I'm actually not always. Sometimes I am not in places where internet is easily available. However to answer the question regarding where to find the legislation: go to click on English or French as is your preference and then click on Videos. The two video trainings on the legislation are 7 and 8. The video that is about training people with disability specifically is video 8. I hope this helps. And, again, sorry it took so long for me to respond.

Life as the mother of 4 said...

Do you have an abuse prevention curriculum you'd recommend? I have an 11 year-old I'd like to protect.