Saturday, October 01, 2011

Answering The Call

The phone rang in amidst hours of meetings, almost as if it had waited until I had a free moment. I answered, expecting to hear Joe's voice, when instead I heard a small and somewhat frightened voice. After a few seconds of explanation, I understood that I was speaking to the woman who had spoken to me in the hallway, the woman who was the subject of yesterday's post. Suddenly, I felt the deep need to apologize, somehow, and I spluttered about for a moment, when she indicated that she'd simply like to say something.

She was not angered by my post, she explained, she had expected it. She said her "ranting" about me and my lectures was due to her embarrassment about her behaviour and the horrible sense that she'd had at being "caught" at her worst. She didn't blame me for writing what I wrote, she said that she'd read it over and over again and stopped only when she feared she was becoming obsessed by it. She had not had the courage to read the comments and thought that maybe she never would. It had taken her a little while to find out where I worked, then find the number and then work up the courage to call. "I wanted to apologize again," she said.

We had a long talk and I wanted to assure her that I meant what I said in the post. That I find, as much as I lecture about 'respectful approaches' and as much as I write about 'respectful treatment' ... I find myself lacking in moments when the "hierarchy" gets the best of me and thus the person experiences the worst of me. That I am guilty of "the tone that belittles" and the "attitude that diminishes" more often than I like to admit. I tried, I said, in my post, to reflect that her behaviour reflected badly on her but it also caused me to reflect, honestly about my own.

I don't think we ever get to a "moment of enlightenment" wherein, henceforth, we become consistently respectful of others, constantly regarding all as equals and uncommonly welcoming to all. I believe that our actions will always be moment by moment decisions about how we choose to exercise our sense of power or how we choose to react to our sense of powerlessness. From my interactions with bank tellers, to my interactions with my staff, to my interactions with my supervisors - every encounter is laced with decisions and every encounter is fraught with the danger that I will either misuse my power or submit to my powerlessness. I long ago, began to see that I had to think in the moment, every moment, both of what was being said and what was going on.

You've heard how parents sometimes speak to children.

You've heard how supervisors sometimes speak to staff.

My father once told me, when thinking I'd marry a woman: Watch how she treats waiters, that will tell you everything you need to know about her character. I didn't understand then, as I understand now, the wisdom of that advice. (Joe treats wait staff with great respect.)

There is something in every dynamic that can bring out the worst in every one of us.

We talked about all of this. What she did and how she did it was horrible. What she did with what she did was responsible. She thought about it, understood how her mood at the moment, her frustration at the position of my chair, and the power that is presumed between the able and the disabled - led her to behave horribly. She was, she said, kind of glad to have been caught, kind of glad to be so powerfully reminded of who she can become if she isn't on guard. I told her that her phone call meant a lot to me. That I appreciated the time and effort she took to reach out to me. I also appreciated the fact that she didn't either deny or try to explain away what she had done - she took responsibility and determined that she would learn from it.

She asked if I was going to blog about the conversation. I told her that, as this had been a personal conversation between two people, I wouldn't without her permission.

Hanging up the phone, I continued on, probably more carefully and thoughtfully, into my day.


Baba Yaga said...

Yes. Our own unawareness, or over-concern with self, or under-concern with self or whatever it is in that moment is always there to catch all of us out - on either end of the power differential. Guilty, over and over again. (Less 'over and over again' as I go on, I hope.)

It's never other than cringeworthy, and cruel. It does become useful when it's used.

Sounds as though both of you handled that conversation with grace.

Anonymous said...

It took great courage to do what she did, and I'm glad she found it.

We all make many, many mistakes in this life. But it's owning up to them and learning from them that's important.

I hope she can forgive herself, as you have forgiven her,and move forward.


Jan said...

This is a continuing step in that woman's life. She has shown she has courage and responsibility by her actions. If this was a learning experience for her and she takes these lessons and applys them she can become a caring and effective advocate. We all do things that are wrong in so many ways and when we get caught we have the choice of learning something and enhancing our lives or ignoring the issue. Hopefully she makes the first choice. Thank you Dave for two very thought provoking posts. It is also an opportunity to evaluate my interractions with the rest of humanity.

Noisyworld said...

Wow, that lady has guts and humility, too skills that aren't easy to master, kudos to her and kudos to you Dave for handling it so sensitively :)

Kasie said...

Thank you and thanks to her for sharing this very important conversation!
When given the opportunity we all become better people, don't we?

lillytigre said...

It took tons of guts for her to read the post and again try to atone for her words. This restores my faith in people a little more

CL said...

I'm really glad to hear how this turned out. And I think it's important for us all to remember that we're all capable of similar behavior -- we all have our worst moments in whatever we do, and so we all have room to improve and grow.

And as a general comment, I just want to say how much I love your blog at times like these. I feel like you have inspired so many people to think about disability differently, and to be more aware of how their own behavior affects others. Just reading and participating in the little community has changed my attitudes and behavior in small but important ways, and this encounter is an example of the affect that these discussions have on readers.

I have wondered, as people did in the previous thread, how it can be that you encounter readers of this blog who claim to love you but then treat you poorly in some way -- it has happened a few times, and it always makes me really sad. But I think it means we all have to remember that just reading this blog and agreeing with you isn't enough. We have to be consciously thinking about how we treat other people all the time. And I really do believe this blog is making a difference for many, many people.

Dave Hingsburger said...

CL, thank you. I also need to say that I find that 'this little community,' as you called it, has had an impact on me, has influenced my thinking and informed my decisions. I think that sometimes the discussions here in the comment section are more important than the blog that inspired them. At times, I feel like I'm in a 'disabilities studies' class - right here. The blog is a means for me to 'think out loud' and to get feedback. I appreciate what you said and hope you feel my appreciation 'right back at ya!'

L. said...

I really liked Noisyworld's comment, and agree--that this woman had not only guts but also humility to read what you'd written yesterday, then call you.

I didn't comment yesterday, but I was horrified at her comment. It seemed inappropriate for even a child because it was full of condescension. But almost immediately I identified things I've said to my own children, or the ways that I've said them, that were different but that I was still equally ashamed of. Recently I've been reading several different online conversations about disability awareness and advocacy and I can see just by reading (as well as my limited personal experience) how much I have to learn. In an ideal world, I feel, we acknowledge differences without feeling they make things lesser or uncomfortable, but in reality it is all too easy to act with privilege, or discomfort, or fear, etc. etc. Even the act of trying to do the right thing can in itself be offensive. I think you and your commenters are very right that this kind of incident is "above" very few of us. I will keep on trying.

Kristine said...

I appreciated that you stated in the original post, and restated in this one, your confession of using "that tone" yourself at times. We all prefer to be the ones noticing, being offended by, and decrying social injustice. It's much less fun to admit that we've all been guilty of feeling and acting "better" than someone else.

I can admit it, but I don't like to. Being in a wheelchair all my life, I spent my K-12 years intentionally putting as much space between myself and the "special ed" kids as possible. I hated that people sometimes thought I was intellectually disabled, and didn't want to encourage such thoughts by association. I figured it was hard enough for me to fit in, be accepted, and respected. As an adult, I've made a lot of progress in that regard, but it's still not always easy or natural. I still find myself sometimes worrying too much about what people are thinking of me.

Reading this blog has helped me a lot. Not just because I'll think, "What if a Dave were watching and judging me right now?," but also because it reminds me how many positive experiences you've had, and I've had, when taking the time to get to know and authentically communicate with people with intellectual and other disabilities. I'm monitoring myself for "bad behavior," but more importantly, I'm better recognizing opportunities for meaningful moments. :)

theknapper said...

Thank you for the follow up. I hope the woman you wrote about is able to read the comments today and see that her phoning you and her willingness to have a real conversation is what makes the difference. This is what the concept of retribution is all make ammends, take responsibility and to make different decisions in the present and future. She had taken a big step down on the ethics ladder and now has been able to take a step up.I honour her for contacting you and honour you for your openness to have an honest and compassionate conversation.I suspect all of us here have not always acted as respectfully as we could. I know I have made my mistakes. Thank you again.

Kristin said...

I am impressed with her courage and with the grace you both showed during that conversation.

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