Yesterday I was honoured to be asked to speak at a celebration wherein the new name of an agency, that I have worked with for over 31 years, was announced. Behaviour Management Services of York and Simcoe and I have had some kind of relationship from the day I first started there until today. I started there in 1981 and over the years though I left and worked at other places and lived in other provinces, I have maintained a role, actively, as a consultant to the agency and it's a connection that really matters to me.
When preparing to speak, I had only five minutes and that's way more difficult for me to do than a whole day, I glanced back at my resume and found things there that had memories flooding back. Chief amongst those was an article that I was the lead author on, called 'Dealing with sexuality in a community residential service.' It's a relatively benign title, given it by the journal editors because they thought a more 'fully informed title,' would have people simply refusing to read it. See it was written in 1986 and it was about providing service to LGBT people with intellectual disabilities. In my awareness it was the first published article that suggested that people with intellectual disabilities had a right to three things: to adulthood, to love and to choose the object of their affections.
The article had been inspired by a call from a residential agency who had opened a group home for men with disabilities who had moved from a large facility. We were told that there had been an 'outbreak of homosexuality' in the group home. You can imagine what the expectations were - we needed to stomp out the fires of deviant passion. And, they got me as a consultant. No way was there going to be any kind of stomping.
That year I was aware of seven people, five men and two women, who had been fired from their places of employment, service agencies to people with disabilities, because they had been 'discovered' to have been gay (there wasn't the sophisticated language around sexual differences back then). I felt that I needed, if I was to do my work well and without fear, to come out to my boss and my fellow employees. I knew I was taking a chance. I was not fired and I was supported in my work to ensure that the 'outbreak of homosexuality' would be met with tolerance and that no one was going to be punished.
The work turned out to be enlightening from a number of different perspectives. One of the men, for example, engaged in homosexual behaviour willingly and with both knowledge and consent, but he did not identify as gay and had to 'think of women' in order to perform with his partner. He'd only ever lived in all male environments and was actively anxious about any contact with females. He is now happily married to a woman, having conquered the deficits of hetero-social skills that develop in all male environments. His rights to his sexuality had to be supported and encouraged even as we supported those men who identified as being gay and who wanted to love without fear and without suffering from the harsh attitudes of some who were paid to support them.
So the paper was written. In it the suggestion that people with disabilities would have the same range of sexualities and means of sexual expression as exist in the typical population was stated. Further it stated that if we were to serve the people who have disabilities then we have to serve the diversity that comes with being human.
This paper was not well received.
I was called a lot of names.
I went on to present this paper at a large conference. My heart beat rapidly in my chest, gay people I knew in service all were too terrified to come and hear the presentation, they didn't want to be identified as even knowing me. I understood that at the time and I understand that now, I had the support of an agency behind me. My employment was never in jeopardy. When I was done that presentation, I found that my demand as a public speaker had almost dried up. No one wanted to know me, to hire me, to work with me.
But that didn't last as long as I thought it would.
A few brave people invited me to present at conferences, at work shops and at staff trainings. Usually on less controversial subjects, but not always. And ... my career came back to me.
So, I thought of all of that as I looked through my memory box of a resume ... I found an earlier publication 'Appropriately Inappropriate' which was the title chosen by the journal, changing the original from ' The Inappropriateness of Age Appropriateness' wherein we championed the right of people with disabilities to have a full range of choices and suggested that the concept was being used to bully people with disabilities, to rob them of their possessions and to limit their choices. Yikes, did people respond poorly to that one!
Anyways ... I had five minutes to talk about the agency and it's history. So, that's what I did. I talked about how the agency grew in it's understanding of the context of the behaviours that people with disabilities sometimes performed - about getting meaning from context and that meaning needed to guide our actions ... and the broader we made that context the deeper meaning we would find. I said it differently than what I'm saying here, but that was the theme of what I said.
The name change was announced shortly after I spoke and I am now proudly a consultant to The Centre for Behaviour Health Sciences. It's been 31 years and counting.
I congratulate them all, I wish them well on their continued journey and hope that I can walk with them a while longer. I will never forget the courage of an agency that would allow me to be me in it, that would be willing to challenge orthodoxy and prejudice, and that would believe, before it was trendy to do so, that rights and choices were the underpinning of good practise.