Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Really, I Mean REALLY?

Panic wells in my chest. I don't want to answer the question. Not that it's a hard one, "What movie do you want to go see?" But the thing is for one of my friends, this is a question that has a right answer. Make the wrong choice and it's "Really? THAT'S the one you want to see?" The trouble with writing this post is that there is no way I can communicate to you the tone of his voice. The condemnation in those words. Now, when asked the question, I just try to guess the right answer, I try to pick a movie that will meet with approval.

You're wondering now how I could be friends with someone like that. Well, there are other aspects of our friendship that I enjoy. And besides, everyone I know does this about something, "Really, you like that song?" "Don't tell me that you actually watch the Young and the Restless." "Please don't call murder mysteries, literature." Everyone has an opinion on everything, and everyone seems mightily convinced of the rightness of their opinion.

Even me. Kraft Peanut Butter is the only really good peanut butter. You eat ... what?

Most of us have the ability to stand up to these little daily assaults on our self esteem, our tastes, our choices. We've learned to like what we like and be damned the rest of you. But, for me this was a lesson tough to learn and a way of living that's tough to maintain ... ergo, my capitulation on choice of movie to my friend.

I thought of all this when I was talking to a group of staff about the issue of 'choice' in the life of people with intellectual disability. It came clear to me that 'choice' could only be made where there was both self-esteem and assertiveness. I saw a definition of choice for people with disabilities that helped me think this through. Choice is uncoerced selection.

Most agencies are concerned about the opportunity for an increased number of 'selections' but have not put much emphasis on the 'uncoerced' part. There is only choice where there is no fear of punishment. Where there is safety to select. Where there the word 'REALLY' as in, "Do you REALLY want dessert?" "Do you REALLY want to buy that blouse?" does not exist.

For the last year and a bit, I've been working on discovering changes that agencies and families can make in order to increase safety from abuse - physical and sexual. But now I understand that the job is bigger than that - it's the reduction of coercion and the increase of assertion. It's working towards a service wherein we eliminate the little sins as well as the big ones. It's teaching people to stand up to us when we slip up and try to suggest that 'Sound of Music' for the 10,000th time isn't a choice that should be made.

I heard a sermon once about how many people are self satisfied and convinced of their righteousness because they don't commit the big sins, murder, adultery, worshiping golden idols, larceny, perjury and the like. But, the minister continued, what about the little sins. Stealing pens from work, undermining someone's character with snide remarks, not bothering to visit someone in the hospital because you're 'busy'. It's the little sins, he said, that clog up the soul - not getting through the day without committing murder.

This stikes me as important now as I think about this. I know, without question that I have used tone of voice and my personal status combined to get someone with a disability to agree to the 'right' choice. All without realizing that if there is a right and a wrong there is no 'choice'. I know that I have used subtle coercion - because I could, because I wanted to, because I didn't see it as important. And I'd go home feeling like a great staff because I didn't commit the big sins of abuse.

Uncoerced selection.

I have decided to tell my friend the next time he says that it's my turn to choose the movie ... that choice means uncoerced selection and that means that whatever I choose, he's gotta just say, 'Great let's go.'


And the next time I eat Kraft peanut butter I hope my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth - keeping me silent when you tell me you like Jiff.



wendy said...

Wow Dave,
You've left me breathless at 6:15 in the morning. It is so obvious and so difficult. I try really hard to provide opportunities for "choice without coersion". Many times I succeed. Sometimes I fail. Often I feel as though I'm swimming against the tide of my co-workers expectations or beliefs.
That's why I read your blog every morning before I go to work. It reminds me that I am not alone in thinking that clients should be allowed to make the same imperfect choices we do! And you express it so much more articulately than I can! And YES! I want dessert!!

Susan said...

Another "print-it-off-and-put-one-in-everyone's-box" post. And while I'm at it, I think I'll put two in my own.

Brilliant post, Dave. Brilliant. A simple concept, but who else could put it into words that are so easily understood and grasped? What a beautiful, solid, accessible ramp from one dark paradigm to another that is flooded with light.

And, um, not to encourage you in your decision to keep your mouth shut, but you're right about the Kraft peanut butter, you know. :)

stevethehydra said...

I think that when more than one person is going to see a movie together, then it isn't fair of either of them to insist on it being one that the other person doesn't want to watch. If there isn't a movie on that both of them want to watch, then they should either see different movies, or do something else - neither should feel they "have to" do something they don't want to because the other one does.

Of course, that only applies when the two people concerned are in a relationship of equality to one another - friends, lovers, family members, etc. It absolutely doesn't apply if one is in the role of PA or support staff to the other - in that case, the decision should be the PA user's alone, without exception.

Also, i don't really believe in the Christian concept of "sin", but otherwise, i'm in total agreement with you. There is a right, i think, to criticise books, films, music, etc, but certainly not to stop others from enjoying them. (You would think that in a country like the US, which claims "libertarianism" so often as one of its core values, this would be obvious - but, IMO, the disability rights movement are just about the only true libertarians in the US...)

Kei said...

I realize as a parent how often I have tried to influence my kids by using 'really?' Such as this morning when my almost 10 yr old daughter *really* wanted to wear shorts despite the cold wind blowing outside. But she *really* wanted to, so, as I've done with her siblings before her, just answered her with, "Okay, your choice~ I just wanted to be sure"

Funny that we would have that conversation this morning and now I read your blog with this subject.

However, I could have used it yesterday when it would have made me ask myself... "Do you REALLY want another tiny piece of that totally decadent, sweet, chocolate mocha fudge?" I *really* could have used the REALLY?.

Belinda said...

I was about to leave the house--under pressure--really busy--but I remembered I hadn't Chewed the Fat with Dave yet today and came back and fired up the computer again. I'm really glad I did.

This is so important. Most important of all. The big things blind us, whether we believe in the concept of sin or not, we comfort ourselves by saying, "We don't do THAT," when we are so prone to do millions of little things that pull the rug of confidence away from people's feet.

I've done it lots myself at home and work. I'm learning to do it less and less--I hope.

Thanks for another home run.

Unknown said...

Everyone has summed it up really well, so all I have to is...

SKIPPY! Extra chunky!!! :-)

BenefitScroungingScum said...

This and some of your recent postings strike me as you making the journey from social work professional to disabled person.
(I've dithered about saying that as I mean it as a compliment and so hope it doesn't offend)
Bendy Girl

Karen Putz said...

Wow, you summed up my feelings about choice with those two words!

Ole Ferme l'Oeil said...

Yes, exactly!
Thank You Dave for this post.