Friday, March 07, 2014

For the First Time At the Centre

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.


Anonymous said...

Once again, thank you, Dave. Thanks to the agency which supported you, too.

Anonymous said...

I was in the audience when you and Dorothy presented the Inappropriateness of Age appropriateness topic. People were outraged. People just hated what you were saying. When someone said they had removed a woman's dolls because they weren't age appropriate you said that they didn't remove them, they stole them. I remember clearly you saying that theft was in the criminal code of Canada and maybe that should be our night time reading. You were on fire. I didn't agree with you then on very many things but over time I came to be a big fan. You had the courage to lead. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I gasped when reading this because I was there in Ottawa when you did that presentation on supporting gay people in service. You may never know what a shockwave that presentation caused. The people I were with were outraged and my ED said that you were the most dangerous person in service and should never be allowed to speak again. In fact he said that he would complain about the session to the organizers. I kept thinking to myself. I'm lesbian and I've never been prouder of someone from my tribe.

Ron Arnold said...

Dave - your influence is wide and vitally important. I count myself fortunate for having heard you speak on numerous occasions and having the chance to talk to you briefly as well. Thank you for what you've done and what you continue to do.

Even though my professional focus has gotten away from working primarily with folks with developmental things going on (more mental health now - though I do offer support to supports coordinators with dually diagnosed folks), I come here almost daily to hear what's on your mind. I find you inspiring. :)

Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

Thank God they got you and thank you for having the courage to trail blaze. I shudder to think where we would be if people like you had not had the courage to risk a lot and your agency had not had the courage to stand behind you. Where we are right now regarding sexuality and people with developmental disabilities is not terrific but it would be so much worse if not for the people who put themselves on the line. Thank you Dave, Colleen
PS I just want to rant about who do we think we are to control people like this!

Anonymous said...

Dangerous Dave! Gotta like that! :-) You should get a T-shirt! haha Thank for blazing trails. There can never be enough discussion and action on treating each other with respect.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Oh, my, there are people here who remember those two particular lectures. How awesome is that!! I admit that I'm so busy with NOW that I don't often think about THEN. But as I was called upon to speak about the past leading to the present I found myself reliving some fairly powerful (for me) moments. I think that 'Dangerous Dave' was more like 'won't shut up Dave'. Anyways, don't feel all that dangerous any more.

Belinda Burston said...

I remember the "Inappropriateness of Age Appropriateness" talk and how much I loved it, as did many of my fellow staff. We were supporting someone who loved dressing in a cowboy hat and boot--oh, and a sherrif's badge too, and shouting "yee-haw" and telling us he was going to "California!" We loved his pizzaz and personality, and your talk affirmed that we were not off track in accepting him for who he was. He rode off into the sunset a few years ago, and is fondly remembered--just as he was--and not some re-engineered version of what passes as "normal."

I love the new name. Congratulations on such a great choice!