Saturday, September 03, 2011

Joe's Sort of Blog

Joe walks mad.

I can tell from a distance if he is upset, and I could tell in the few steps he took from door to dining room that he was really, really angry. He plopped down on the chair beside the desk and, though he normally waits to see if I'm working on something or writing an email, he started right in. "People and their Bloody cellphones,' he started, it's a rant that we've both made several times, but I knew something was different, 'I was in the line at the bank ...' he pauses and shakes his head.

'I was right behind a woman who was there supporting a young guy with Down Syndrome. She was on the phone the whole time she was in the line up. Don't people realize that they are always talking louder on the phone than they think they are, that they can be heard by everyone around them? She was gossiping with someone on the other end of the phone, I think it was probably a co-worker. All sorts of private information about the people they served was tossed out for all to hear. The man with her was really, really embarrassed listening to her. It was clear he knew that everyone else could hear. I didn't know what to do. Then when she said that she was at the bank and that she had to go soon because he needed help because he couldn't sign his name ...' here he paused to take a breath, 'I reached out and tapped her on the shoulder.'

Anyone who knows Joe, knows what a big deal this is. He is naturally reticent and almost never confronts anyone. Well, not true, he confronts me regularly. So doing this would have been very hard for him. 'I told her,' he said, 'that she was in public and we could all hear her. I told her that he could hear her. She hung up and told me that I needed to mind my own business. I wanted to tell her that it was her who needed to mind her mouth and not share his business with everyone in the line. When she said that he couldn't sign his name he looked like he wanted to die or to disappear.'

We talked this through. We decided two things. First, Joe wanted me to immediately write an email to all staff at Vita and tell them what happened and remind them that when they are in public, if they are on the phone, they are speaking publicly to everyone around them. He wanted me to try to make sure that everyone, at least at Vita, was careful. I wrote that email then and there. Joe doesn't ask these kinds of things of me often. Then he asked me to make this a blog so that everyone else would think about it too ... parents would be careful about talking about their kids publicaly on the phone, staff would be careful about sharing information out loud in public, that everyone would just be a bit more careful.

'His face will haunt me for a very long time,' Joe said. I didn't know what to do, I should have acted sooner, but I kept thinking it wasn't my responsibility - but then when I saw his face, I knew that it was.

I'm proud that Joe acted. I'm proud that he wanted me to do something to make sure that what he saw isn't repeated. Concern that becomes action is exactly what we need.

So from Joe to me, from me to you ... when you can be heard, even if only in your own heart, choose carefully the words that you say.


CL said...

I'm so glad that Joe said something. Whenever something like this happens, we usually walk away wishing we had said more, wishing we had said the perfect thing, and that's all good to think about for next time... but a lot of people would have frozen and said nothing. Joe should be proud that he intervened.

Since reading this blog I've become more aware of the problem of staff members mistreating the people that they are supposed to be assisting. I teach college, and the way these staff members seem to talk reminds me of how instructors talk about the students behind their backs -- trading stories of various things that irritate us, like their late paper excuses, their grade complaints, their inattention in class. I think it's probably normal to want to blow off steam with colleagues, to talk about the people you deal with all day, whoever they are... But anyone who would belittle another human being like that should not be allowed to work with disabled people. This woman clearly didn't even view the man as a person, or she never would have done that.

I wonder what we can do about it -- intervening when we see abuse is very important. And encouraging people to speak up when they have been mistreated is also important... but it seems like many workers feel free to behave however they want when they are alone with the person they are assisting.

In organizations where these problems seem to be widespread, maybe something like a "secret shopper" program could be implemented. Undercover people could observe the staff members out in public and report back... I suppose nobody has the funding for that sort of thing, and that people would hate the threat of "spying." I'm just trying to think of something.

Education: Exploring Online Learning said...

Thank you, Joe and Dave.

Baba Yaga said...

Joe, thank you.

When I was still in the psychiatric system, I went with a couple of lads from a group home to do some voluntary work, under the aegis of day services. And one day the day services staff person and one of the paid workers where we volunteered were discussing one of the lads. In those days, I was pathologically unassertive, but the horror grew and grew... and eventually I protested.

The response was, "Oh, he's not like you". (It's amazing how often I've been told I'm not like someone who I am, in fact, very much like, except for a posh accent and an over-sized vocabulary.)

These days I think I'd at least manage an expletive in response to "He's not like you": then, I was just so appalled as to be bereft of words.

Sometimes I think people just don't appreciate how little information it takes to identify someone. More often, I think they don't very much care: the privacy of people "not like us", not really people, isn't important.

Some people, of course, don't have any concept of privacy, or of respect for others' boundaries. They probably won't do much harm selling baked beans.

Anonymous said...

It should be a rule not to talk about someone in front of the person, and don't talk about someone in public.
I have been invisible several times, it's not good to hear others talking about you, and not good things they talk.
As an Autistic with high social anxiety I would not be able to easily say that this is wrong, I wish I could.

Kris S. said...

SPOT ON, Joe--and thanks for sharing, Dave. I will be passing this along those I supervise.

painting with fire said...

Good for Joe to say something. And good on you both to remind us all about it.

clairesmum said...

a stray thought...i know the 'words hurt' cards are a response to a different type of verbal abuse...but THIS is verbal and abusive (ie, failure to respect the privacy rights of another person, esp. one who is reliant on others for assistance with ADLS and IADLS.) It has the impact of verbal abuse - creates feelings of shame (physical sx of anxiety - flushed face, rapid breathing, knot in tummy) and the victim is frozen in place - unable to fight back or flee from the situation.....
so, if we think of it as verbal abuse...still hard to respond to that by intervening, but.....
and BIG thanks to Joe for intervening, and to you and Joe for taking the follow up steps you have taken.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Kris S ... thank you for passing this story along to your staff, I encourage all readers who work in any form of human service to use this story. Take out the reference to Vita if you'd like, ok by me, and send it round. This kind of thing I believe is probably more common than we imagine. I too appreciate Joe's speaking up - especially since he had to do so against his natural inclinations towards non-confrontation. That, to me, is courage.

Andrea S. said...

I agree that Joe was really brave to speak up the way he did.

And good for him to push for others to know they shouldn't treat their clients the way this woman did.

Colleen said...

Dear Dave and Joe:

Thank you so much for addressing this issue. On Wednesday I will be meeting a whole new class of brand new DSW students and I am going to read them this blog post when I talk about cell phone use - we address this really early in the program. And I cannot think of a more compelling reason to be vigilant about cell phone use than the mortification that Joe describes here. I applaud Joe for speaking up - even though she was not receptive you never know what seeds are planted.


rickismom said...

Thank G-d I rarely use my cell phone. Thanks for the reminder

Lyndsay said...

Good work, Joe! I'm a support worker and I just don't get this. I've watched colleagues do the same type of thing, and it horrifies me. When I'm in public, I don't tell stories about my client because that's personal information. If I talk about my job on twitter or anywhere else, I don't use her name or discuss private details. How unprofessional and hardhearted to not even consider how improperly she was behaving. It is hard to confront someone, but at the end of the day it's the right thing to do. It makes the world a better place.

Sher said...

Thank you, Joe, for speaking up for someone who maybe can't speak these words for himself. I am a support worker who also witnesses this and more on a regular basis, I'm sad to say. I've heard co-workers imitate people's speech difficulties, imitate a know....the things that bullies pick on about a person. The only difference between that behaviour and that of a school yard bully's .... is we're being paid. Disgraceful! You're my hero for the week, Joe.

Noisyworld said...

Yay, go Joe, that must have been really difficult.

If only there had been another person (not quite so involved) who thought like that at the airport :(

Tamara said...

Thank you for speaking up, Joe. I just don't understand why people behave like this. I'm really careful about talking about my son in front of him, not that I'd speak about him that disrespectfully in any case. I just don't understand it. Is it really just training or is it more a problem with not hiring the right people for support positions?

Unknown said...

I promise, Joe.

Amanda said...

It's not just in public, either.

I have heard way more confidential stuff than I ought to hear, because of staff and case managers using their phones in my presence, talking about other clients. At this point I generally don't allow them to use phones in my presence if they're talking about work stuff. Because other people's lives are none of my business, and I have really good hearing so I hear a lot if people aren't careful.

Of course, then there's the people who talk in front of me about other people because they don't think I'll even understand, but that's a whole other kettle of worms.