Monday, May 16, 2011
The Woman Who Made Me Cry
As she rose from her seat and advanced to the podium to give a lunchtime speech, I remembered him, I remembered tears, both his and mine.
As a result of the new legislation requiring that all people with disabilities in Ontario be trained in abuse prevention skills, I've been travelling the province's length and breadth. In doing some statistics for work, I discovered that in the last few months alone I'd trained 410 people with disabilities and 336 staff in the art of abuse prevention. It's been a somewhat overwhelming experience. At times I find myself weary of the 'all abuse, all the time' existence. Even though it's about 'prevention' it's also about 'abuse' ... but I refuse to whine, this is what I've always wanted, the mandatory training of people with disabilities in safety skills. I'm thrilled to be a small part of the process. I was thankful that, years ago, I had been asked to create an abuse prevention class for people with disabilities; that I had taught abuse prevention for over 20 years; that I had experienced training trainers at Vita; that I had the great luck of being in the right place at the right time.
I watched her place her notes carefully on the podium and ready herself to begin. I wondered if she felt my gaze on her and if she noticed the wetness around my eyes. Now, the memory of him had me fully in its grip.
He had come in with about 40 others, for an abuse prevention class. He was maybe a year or two older than I was; he looked around the classroom warily. I knew that he was experiencing the momentary panic of a man whose experience with learning wasn't good, whose expectations of himself were low. He sat down and wiped sweat from his brow. It's because I know his history with education to be a painful one that I designed the class to burst into high energy with yelling; with loud raucous laughter. I wanted a beginning that said 'this isn't your typical class, this isn't desks in straight rows, this isn't learn through listening, this is something different.' His expression of relaxed laughter moments after the class began was reward enough for me.
But it was nowhere near the end of the story.
Much later in the class, it was time to teach about body parts. This is strategically placed well into the curriculum so that those attending will have learned something about being in the class - they are safe here. Many attending will have been victimized; many will have experienced punishment regarding sexuality. In order to learn, they needed first to experience a sense that they would be respectfully cared for here in this place, here with this teacher. I always tense up when we get to 'body parts' as many of those attending, those in their fifties and sixties, will have never learned the words, and if they have, never been allowed to speak them. These words, misunderstood as 'the language of sexuality', are more correctly considered, 'the language of power'. I know that, and soon those attending would too.
We begin with a coin toss to see if we will do the male body or female body first. This time it was men first. Joe stands beside the flip chart with an outline of the body and the class has to fill in the parts that are missing. We always start with the face; get people comfortable with the process. Joe draws on the parts and I make fun of his drawing. The laughter breaks the tension and takes the focus off the body and on to something safe - Joe isn't very good at drawing.
The male body was nearly done and, predictably, the genitals are the last needing to be identified. Someone called out, 'He needs a vagina!' There was quiet as they all waited. This mistake isn't because the person who spoke had a disability and is incompetent, which is what a police officer might think, it's because the person who spoke had a disability and thereby had been purposely denied education. 'That's right, vagina is a word for a private part of a woman's body, does anyone know the name for the male part.' This is a class about being 'right' not being 'wrong'. The identification of the male 'part' as a 'vagina' was more right than wrong, of course, and that needs to be respected.
Finally, someone said, 'I think the word is 'dick''. Everyone howled with laughter, and so did I, because, simply, it was funny. 'That's right too, that's a slang word, does anyone know what a doctor would call that part?' Another voice, very quiet, said, 'penis'. Joe then drew the penis on the body. I made a joke, Everyone laughed until they were exhausted from it. I saw the man who had looked anxious at entering staring at the drawing. I had Joe review all the parts he had drawn onto the body. I saw the man lean forward, listening hard. When Joe said 'penis' while pointing to what he had drawn, the man said the word silently along with him. Then he sat back and started to cry.
We moved on through the class and the fellow collected himself and participated as we did the female body. The group learned, the group grew as people. It is such an honour to do this work. We finished with the 'pledge of personal power' and it was over. They were milling about, chatting to each other as they readied to go. He, the man who had come through the door with hesitation, hesitated again. He came back to me, sitting in my wheelchair and said quietly, 'I have waited all my life to learn about my body. Thank you.' Then he turned and left. I kept it together only until I got in the car.
I cried myself out. Joe kept wiping his face but Joe never admits to crying. I kept feeling this sense of wonder, underpinned by a sense of outrage. Wonder at the fact that I get to do this work. Outrage that it has to be done. Can you imagine having others deny you even the basic language for your body? Can you imagine being only at the receiving end of decision making? Can you imagine having your competence diminished, not by disability, but by the power of others?
But it's different now.
And it's different, ultimately, because of the courage of just one woman.
The woman speaking.
True, many have worked on what became a reality: legislation that would change the world for people with disabilities. Legislation that would give people with disabilities the dignity of knowing about both bodies and boundaries. Legislation that would decrease the power gap between those who give and those who get care.
Legislation that would give all abusers pause.
Legislation brought into being by Minister Madeleine Meilleur.
She was the woman at the podium.
I never, ever, dreamed that I would desperately want to speak to the Minister, but I did that day. When she was done and lunch was over, I spoke with a fellow sitting at her table. I asked if he would introduce me to her. He readily agreed. As she came towards me my heart was in my chest, it was wrongly placed, I wanted it to be in my words. I did to her what others do to me when I speak. I began without context. I started to tell her that I wanted to thank her for what she had done, for the courage that she had had, for the legislation that had passed into law. She quickly asked a question to clarify what I was speaking about, this was a bright woman with an incisive mind, and clarification done, I continued.
This legislation, I believe, is groundbreaking and I wanted her to know that I appreciated what it did and what it would continue to do. I wanted to tell her of the man who has waited all these years to learn about his body, to have the dignity of language, to have his adulthood respected. I wanted her to know that her work would fundamentally alter the experience of thousands upon thousands of people with disabilities. I wanted her to know of this man. But there wasn't time. There was only time to say 'Thank you' and to express, quickly, that her work was appreciated. I could tell by her eyes that it mattered to her to hear what I had to say.
I left the luncheon and drove my wheelchair into an Ontario that I am so incredibly proud to live in.