Yesterday, yes Saturday, I did a training on abuse prevention for perhaps the youngest audience I have ever spoken to in my life. They didn't know it, because I never said it, but from my position of 'old man' it seemed like I was looking at the very future of services to people with disabilities. There wasn't a grey hair amongst them, nary a wrinkle to be seen, they all had 'evolution hands' which looked as if they could text messages and tie shoes while programming an I pod. Luckily, though, they still had an attention span and they seemed to be with me and listening from the moment I started.
This presentation which is a little different than the 'typical' presentation, involves an hour talking and then an hour chatting and answering questions. Again, I was lucky because after a nervous silence when it came time to answer questions, they began asking, well thought out and well formed questions. This was a bright group. I appreciated the opportunity to talk to them and the time was flying by - for me at least, I'm not so sure how they felt.
But then a young man sitting off to the side asked me what might have been the best question I've ever been asked in all my years of training and teaching. Now understand I don't say this lightly. I believe that every question is a good question. I understand the courage it takes to speak up and ask something, I understand the concern that everyone has that their question is a 'stupid question'. Whenever I am in a presentation and asking a question of the presenter I have the nagging fear at the back of my mind that I'm asking a question to which everyone in the room already knows the answer. So, I get it. I appreciate all questions.
His question, however, was a question that indicated that maybe, just maybe, there is a glimmer of hope that the system that serves can become a system that's safe. For the last many years I've been working in that direction. I want parents to feel that their children are safe in our hands. I want people with disabilities to never have to fear our hands. I want us all, at the end our our careers, to be proud of what our hands have done. And I was never, really, sure, that that was a possibility. But his question gave me hope. I tried not to gush at him about the question because all the other questions had been good ones - and I didn't want people to think that it had been a competition. I did say, 'I've never been asked that question before.' I didn't say, 'I have been waiting for that question for years, without knowing it, that's the question I've been waiting for.'
He put his hand up and when I called on him, he asked (and I'm not going to get the wording quite right), "Given you've talked about the power we all have in our relationship to the people we care for, what do we each personally do to deal with that power to ensure that we never, ever, misuse it."
A stunner of a question, isn't it?
I'm not going into my answer here and now as it would take too long and I'm way prouder of him for the question than me for my answer. I do want to say WHY I thought this question, finally asked, is so important, why it's the 'big question'. In that question is an entire acceptance of the personal responsibility we each have for the safety of others. So many staff see themselves as victims of the system as working for horrible supervisors as without control in their work as pawns in the human service machinery. Some of that may be true, some of it may just be whining, some of it might be simply an example of how some human souls are attracted to personal victimhood like iron filings to magnets.
This question begins in a different place with a different set of assumptions. This question begins with an understanding of deep personal responsibility. This question begins with the person as separate from the system they work in, begins with the very relationship between one person and another, begins with the hierarchy and power that comes in that relationship. Abuse is almost always a crime of relationship - that single fact is almost never acknowledged in human services. People talk about the responsibility of systems, rarely the responsibility of one individual to another.
I left that training feeling something new in my heart. A kind of lightness and, could it be, faith that maybe there is a new awareness beginning, after all THE QUESTION had been asked. Minds are now ready for a new concept, a new way of thinking about what we do. Tomorrow is the International Day of Mourning and Memory where I hope we remember lives lost, lives lived unlived. And yet today I'm feeling hope for a future where people will be in the hands of people who use their hands carefully and wisely and with full responsibility.
On some of my posts, I get some emails from people, who don't wish to leave a comment, that tells me that sometimes I write things and see things as significant that maybe aren't. The post I wrote about the woman with Down Syndrome signing her name received the most 'Dave, you've lost it' emails that I've recieved in some time. I suspect this one might too. And I think that's because I'm an imperfect writer who sometimes can't put into words what I'm really feeling. Sometimes I know, deeply, the meaning I want to get across but my words simply can't convey it. All I can say, in my own defense, is that yesterday, a few words were strung together to form a question that gave me a deep sense of hope in the future, and maybe that's all I need you to understand here today.