I came around the corner and into a mass of people. I was going to be doing consultations in the far room but there were lots of other meetings, lots of other things happening there that day. As a result there was a melee of care providers and people with intellectual disabilities. I smiled and waved to a few of those with disabilities that I'd met before, they waved back, some calling out, "Hi, Dave!"
A young man, a staff, was sitting, angled on his chair, partly blocking my way. He was madly texting on his phone, I said, "Good morning," in advance of asking him to move but that became unnecessary because he looked up, right away, saw my, and said, roughly, "Yeah, yeah, hold on, I'll just finish this and move." He continued to text for a few second more - but how odd it is that those seconds feel so long. Then he moved. As I went by, one of the supervisors came into the room saw me, and called out, "Hey, Dave, how was your drive in this morning?" I told her that Joe was parking the car and that we'd made it in just fine.
The young man, who had spoken, not rudely but roughly, earlier, spoke up, "Hey sorry, I didn't realize ..." and then he was stuck. The end of the sentence would have been "... that you didn't have an intellectual disability." Of course he can't say that, he can't say, out loud, that the level of manners that you use, the modulation of your tone of voice, the approach you use to communication is determined by your perceived worth as a human being. I was annoyed but I didn't think that here was the appropriate place to address this.
It was the third appointment of the morning. The door opened an a older guy with a disability came in to speak with me. After about 10 minutes I asked him a question that he wanted his staff to help answer, "Can I go get my staff," he said. I looked at the woman who was in the room with me, my colleague and she nodded agreement and then, so did I.
When he came back he brought the young man who had spoken, roughly not rudely, to me. He saw me there, behind the table, with my note pad out, my fancy pen in my hand, and a senior player on their clinical team sitting to my right. His face froze for a second. We went on and did what we needed to do, his manner now was professional, and open, and quite friendly. His manner with the fellow with a disability was also, not surprisingly as it was under observation, quite supportive and warm.
Once done I asked if I could speak to him privately. My colleague took this as an opportunity to have a cigarette. He looked nervous as the door closed. I won't go into detail about the conversation because it was private but we talked about hierarchy and behaviour and about power and manners. We spoke about the 'better thans' who work with the 'lesser thans' and about the phrase, "I give him all the respect he deserves." The idea that we can determine an amount of respect deserved by another human being, is concerning - it's even more concerning when you buy into the fact that there is a "better" and a "lesser."
He sat there mortified. He only said once, "I didn't know who you were." After I explained that this wasn't the point - the point was that his level of respect, and friendliness and warmth went up with every rung I climbed in his mind. I suggested it would be easier just to assume everyone's on the top rung and everyone deserves respectful interaction. He agreed, apologized. He did ask if I was going to tell his supervisor. I asked what would happen if I did. He paled. I said, see being the "lesser than" isn't fun is it. No I won't tell.
I came back a few months later and saw him there. He's a supervisor now. He said that they'd noticed a big change in him and his attitude - he said he's never told them what happened, one day he might. I told him that the secret was safe with me.
(PS this happened a long while back and is written with the young man's permission)