Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Under Press-ure

This has been a week of interviews. And it's only Tuesday. I did an interview over the weekend on the subject of people who are LGBT and who have a disability. That one was a fairly straight forward one where I felt fairly certain of both the subject and the aims of the writer, further, I knew the magazine he was writing for and I knew that they understood, deeply, the disability community.

Then I did one yesterday regarding the situation, here in Toronto, where a man with a disability died in an interaction with the police. There is a lot of upset and a lot of explosive language regarding the issue. When I was asked for the interview I said 'yes' immediately. That is my 'default position' on interviews. If I know anything about the topic, I don't turn them down. Many of my colleagues are, rightfully, fearful about how they will be represented by the press. Others are concerned about making comments because they are too involved in the situations like this and are rightfully worried about conflicts and confidentiality. I am fearful and concerned, too, but about other things - like how the media will represent issues important to the disability community if no one in the community speaks to them about it.

A couple of issues came up in our discussion. One was about how someone with a disability might react when confronted with an authority figure who is approaching them in a serious investigation. Well, I don't like attributing to disability what doesn't belong. I tried to explain that anyone in that situation would experience panic and confusion and that the same would be true for someone with a disability. That experience might be multiplied for someone who has limited abilities to communicate, but that there is a 'universality' that can't be overlooked. I tried to say all this because I don't like the idea of someone with a disability being made 'other' in situations that simply don't apply. I believe that most people who are put through rigorous or harsh questioning about crimes they didn't commit would experience debilitation, fear, and anxiety. Why would people with disabilities be different, why would the experience be worse?

The other main issue that came up was that some have said that it seems to be dangerous to be a person with a disability simply out there on the streets, that the police may simply target them. Wow. That was something that I think I may have responded to a bit passionately. I thought, but did not say, that it seemed that the death of this individual was being used as a tool to further the ends and purposes of those who may not be entirely committed to disability issues - that maybe the intent was to use this death to illustrate that the police are out of control, and that disability could be used to further that aim. But what I said was that the idea that the police have harsh or negative attitudes towards people with disabilities but that the rest of the population had wonderful, warm and welcoming attitudes was patently untrue. I said that the issue had to be seen in the context of the larger issue of people with disabilities experiencing harsh and brutal interactions with the community at large.

In my workshops on bullying and teasing, people with disabilities, almost to a one, state that they experience this on a daily basis. Research shows that the majority of people with intellectual disabilities who live in the community, live in fear. That fear is not of the police, but of their neighbours, of those in their workplaces, of those in their churches, schools, community centers. As a person with a physical disability, I brace myself every time I go out into the community. I never know what I'm going to face, who fate is going to put in my path. I never know what kind of bigotry I will face, but I know I will face bigotry every time. The police are members of a community and a society that devalue and stereotype people with disabilities. That means, of course, that the police need to have information and training that allows them to have an understanding of the broad diversity of communities that they will be required to deal with - disability is one of those communities.

People with intellectual disabilities are not 'innocents' and people with intellectual disabilities are not always 'innocent' - that they will need to be questioned is a given, how they react to that interview will be, like the rest of us, fully dependant on the approach and the attitude of those doing the questioning. Should police have the skill set to interview someone with a disability? Um ... yes. Should they have training in how to approach an interview with someone who has a disability? Um ... of course. I have seen police be incredibly supportive and wonderfully skilled in interviewing people with intellectual disabilities who have been victims of crime. The very first time I saw this done well, I knew it was possible for that skill of that one officer to be generalized to others.

There were other questions that were more specific to the situation that I was being called about, and I tried to respond - but only with a 'what I read in the paper' expertise. I reflected about how putting a man who doesn't use spoken language, but prefers to sign or gesture, into handcuffs may be about the worst decision that could be made. It would be like trying to question someone after taping their mouth shut. I reflected that as soon as they had information that the man had an intellectual disability and did not speak, their methods of interaction needed to change. Information like that should have an impact on how one is questioned. If the situation happened as had been reported I would have much to say in any debriefing of those involved in the altercation. I also reflected that the media's caricature of this man as a 'child in an adult's body' was offensive to him, his adulthood, his life experiences.

I hung up from the interview not knowing what was going to happen next. I'm not sure I said anything that he expected that I would say. I'm not sure that I said anything that those who are fomenting protest would have wanted me to say. I'm not sure that I said anything that those within the community living movement would have hoped that I'd say. But, I said what I said because I believe it to be true - and that's all I can do in these situations.

So, now I wait for the article and the fallout from the decision to say yes to answer questions that are important to me, both as a person with a disability and as a care provider with others who have disabilities. I can only hope that someone, somewhere, is pleased that I answered the phone yesterday.

Update: the article is now up and on line and can be read here. Let me know what you think.


Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

For what it is worth - I am pleased that you took this interview. The answers that you gave are what needed to be said. I hope they publish it accurately.


Tamara said...

It sounds like you gave really thoughtful and complete answers - rather than only speaking in anger or passion. I hope the journalist takes advantage of your information and writes a more comprehensive article. I think I found the story - how very sad.

Jess and Glacier said...

*thumbs up*
I'm glad you answered the phone.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Just a follow up: The article came out and the writer did a nice job of being balanced.

Robink said...

I'm glad that someone with such passion and education on the subject could articulate effectively what many of us think.

It seems that this journalist did a good job of plucking points from your interview without manipulating and twisting your words.

Susan Goharriz said...

I really like the article . . . it focused on the respect for loss of life . . . and for the pervasive lack of ability by the police to de-escalate confrontations. It also gives a glimpse of the horrors experienced by a man who was simply walking with his mother to have pizza (maybe a treat?) and was restrained by police and was unable to even communicate. Sounds like the police were unwilling to let his mother intervene. It will be interesting to see what the SIU comes up with. Also interesting to see what the autopsy results show . . . although they are only a side bar in a story about the ineptitude of 3 police officers to size up a situation!
Great interview . . . gives a good sense of balance to the story!

Melanie Ching said...

Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with these interviews. As I stood at the vigil last night I wondered if you would blog about this...and you did! :D

Amanda Forest Vivian said...

Hi Dave, is the interview only in the newspaper, or is there a way to read it online?

Noisyworld said...

I'm impressed at how good a job that journalist did of interpreting your points :) Which, obviously, were great and well put- as normal :)

Belinda said...

An excellent newspaper article and the opportunity to make important points wasn't lost.

GirlWithTheCane said...

It seemed to me that the language in the article was a bit negative at first, but the author didn't stay in that voice. I liked the way your comments were incorporated, Dave. It sounds like a good summary of your points.

I wasn't aware that this had happened (I don't live in the GTA and don't read the Toronto papers that often). I seem to remember a very similar story coming out of the States a while back. So sad.

CT said...

Dave, that's great. Your message came across clear and on point.