Friday, February 25, 2011


Yes, it's true, I've been lecturing for a long time. I've literally spoken to hundreds of thousands of faces, and double that in ears, over the years. Yet I still get very nervous. This is particularly true when I am doing something a little different to an audience I'm not used to. I was asked to do a keynote presentation at a conference, which happened yesterday, on the issue of Justice and Disability. I knew that the audience would have human service workers but that there would also be a liberal smattering of law enforcement and justice professionals in attendance. I had a tiny voice screaming, 'yikes!!!!' in the back of my head all week.

I've been writing the talk for several weeks, organizing stories, putting together a flow based on a central message. As well, it's been a time of training people with disabilities in abuse prevention. So on a couple of occasions, when there was chat time with some of the people with intellectual disabilities going through the training, I've taken the time to ask, 'What should I say when I talk to the police about people with disabilities?" The question generated much more interest than I'd anticipated. So many had stories, most of them weren't particularly positive. Stories about reporting things to the police and not seeing any result from their actions. I explained that things were changing and that the mere fact that I was teaching police about people with disabilities and talking about the need for justice for all demonstrated that change.

One fellow said that he knew what I should say but he couldn't  think of how to say it. He struggled a bit to get it out and then asked if we could talk again after the session. He was aware that I was soon to start and he freed me up to do what I had to do. I can forget to follow up on these conversations with the busyness of the work. This time, I remembered, and again, he struggled. I wrote down what he said right after he said it. I knew then, I had a 'kicker' that I could use near the end of my presentation. Here's what he said:

I want them, the police, when they talk to me, not to talk to me like they talked to the last person who had a disability, or all the other people with disabilities either, I want them to talk to me like I'm fresh.

I was awestruck. He wanted police to talk to him beyond prejudice, beyond expectations, beyond their own history. He wanted them to start fresh with him as a person, a person with a disability yes, but a unique person with a disability. There is such good advice to all of us here. I carry a history of expectations into every interaction I have with someone with an intellectual disability. And every new person I meet is, well, a new person. My experience helps me prepare but it doesn't enable me to meet 'this guy' in 'this place' with 'this disability'. This fresh person.

You know, I think that is what every individual in a minority wants. 'Don't expect me to be like the last gay person you met.' 'Don't expect me to be like the last black person you met.' Don't expect me to be like the last Christian you met.' Don't expect me to be anything but me. I want to be fresh.

New person. New start.

Fresh situation. Fresh ideas.

My goal for myself here is clear. I wanna 'get fresh' more often and thus reduce the likelihood that I'll ever, personally, go stale.


theknapper said...

We all need to do this.

Tamara said...

Brilliant. I'm going to use that in my son's next IEP as we transition from middle school to high school. What a great way to show them they need to look at my son as an individual, not based on any preconceptions or experiences you've had that put him in a box.

What a challenge for the police officers!

Andrea S. said...

Good advice for teachers and other professionals as well as the police. I can remember when I was first looking at colleges to go to after high school (back in the days before the Americans with Disabilities Act required universities to provide "reasonable accommodations" to students with disabilities), some of the colleges I spoke to were convinced I ought to be able to do without an interpreter because they had known one other deaf student who had gotten by without one. It took some convincing to get through to them that different deaf students do have different needs--I'm not going to be automatically the same as the last deaf student they knew.

Nan said...

Thanks Dave ... I will try to see things, to see people FRESH today!

Louna said...

This message ought to be spread far and wide, not only to police officers, but to anyone who ever interacts with another human being. That's a lot of people. Let's get spreading!

Noisyworld said...

I hope nobody mis-reads this post and expects you to "get fresh" with everybody you meet, you'd be charged with a sexual harrassment claim lol

Fantastic writing as normal :)

marjorie rose said...

Hi! I'm new to blogging and new to your blog but I wanted to tell you that this is one of the best posts I've read. It's real and honest..and like you say, fresh.

I worked with people living with disabilities for a little over four years and I understand that need. But the truth is, no matter what your situation in life is, you want to be seen and heard for yourself, not for the other person's pre- and misconceptions. WE ALL NEED IT.

This post is lovely and shows what a lovely person you are.

Have a wonderful weekend!

Belinda said...

A wonderfully put point. I want to remember it forever. Everyone should be "fresh."

wendy said...

Wow. Just wow. There's a challenge for me to try to live up to!

Ettina said...

Oh, what I could say about police. This is a big fear for me. I have Newson Syndrome, a subtype of autism characterized by a phobia of commands, and I'm often worried that if a police officer treats me the wrong way, it could trigger behavior I can't control that they'd respond to with a show of force. I'm very law-abiding, but that doesn't completely guarantee I won't get into a bad situation. One example: I can't tolerate a shoulder strap, so I regularly wear my seatbelt the wrong way. Once, my Dad and I got pulled over for this reason, and I got a ticket. I froze to keep myself from saying or doing something to express my outrage at this (I don't think it's fair to have poorly-designed shoulder straps that choke people, and then require that they be used). Fortunately, my Dad was there, and he spoke for me until the police officer asked him if I could speak - at which point I managed to say a few carefully chosen words. (Doing it over, I'd prefer if he'd said I had a disability resulting in me being intermittently unable to speak.) I shudder to think what might have happened if I had been alone, such as once I get my full driver's license.