Anyone who has followed my work, or read my book, Just Say Know, will know that I don't like and won't use the term 'vulnerable populations' or ever refer to a specific group of people as 'vulnerable.' I think doing so is kind of a massive linguistic form of 'blaming the victim.' It makes 'something about them' the reason 'something happens to them.' It makes the assumption that a person is, and always will be, vulnerable due to a state of being. The only response to the 'status' of ' one of the vulnerable' is the 'status' of 'the protected.' The term focuses our attention on what we do to protect the forever, and ever, vulnerability of the other. The term focuses our attention away from the fact that 'we, the protector' are also 'we, the abuser.'
I'm proud of the fact that I was one of the first to write and suggestion that protection increases vulnerability. A person's level of vulnerability does not get established at birth but is created by opportunities for learning skills to stay safe, opportunity to practise and use voice, and, of course, for active permission to be non-compliant, even forcefully so. We the
Having said all that, when I saw her, she looked so vulnerable. She was 5 or 6 years old, small, thin, frail looking. She had Down Syndrome and her whole demeanour was one of shyness, perhaps even subservience. She was in a tight line up of children waiting for face painting. The line up was long. We had two kids in the line up, a few in front of the frail little girl, and we were told that we had another 30 to 40 minutes to wait.
So that's what we did.
Slowly enough to be torturous, the line moved forward. Just as Ruby was about to be painted, I noticed a brute of a kid stalking the line, she wasn't big, but she had set her body and her face to be intimidating. I became very alert when I saw this kid see the little girl already in the line up, with her arms wrapped all the way round her, holding herself as she waited. Stomping over, she said to the little girl with Down Syndrome, who had been waiting, "Thanks for saving my place," and began to push in to the line up.
"No, NO! I don't know you."
The other girl did not listen and continued to push in. Seeing that her protest didn't work, she turned her body, put her hand up and said, "No!" At this point the other children, who had been aware of the bully but who had not acted, were spurred to action. "Yeah, get to the back of the line!" called out one. "We've been waiting already!!" said another.
The bully ended up at the back of the line, stayed there for a second, and then found her mother and left in tears.
I looked back at the little girl, who looked so frail. I understood something, because she looks frail, because she looks vulnerable, because people will see her that way, because predators and bullies of all kinds will hone in on the perceived vulnerability, she is in extra need of strategies of her own.
It was only later, much later, that I realized something.
Really, really big.
That little girls Mom and Dad, were there, I saw them watching her in the line up just like we were watching Ruby and Sadie. I saw her wave to them, excitedly. I saw them wave back.
When the bully approached, they didn't move in to speak for or to advocate for to to be the voice of their child. They let her handle it. They trusted their teaching and training and they trusted her to be her own advocate and her own voice.
It is never really possible to speak for another person. It is possible, however, to teach someone to speak for themselves.
Even if they don't speak.
Even if they appear vulnerable.
Even if the idea scares the golly gee willikers out of you.