Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Pasta and Protection

I want to tell you about an amazing conversation. Joe and I went out for lunch with a couple of guys with disabilities we had met during one of our trainings. It had been arranged by a woman we all knew in common and she, we and they met at an Italian restaurant. It was a fun and easy time together. Conversation flowed naturally and covered a wide range of topics. These were guys with interests and who lived full lives - they also had the ability to be interested in the lives of others so our conversation ranged back and forth across the big pond.

Then, suddenly, they were telling us about going out to a pub one night and getting the sense that something was very wrong. They managed to call for a ride and leave the bar about a half an hour before a huge fight broke out. They laughed about their close call. Then they noticed the look on my face. I was shocked. At first I think they thought I was shocked because they had been out drinking. I wasn't, of course, not in the least. Good on them. A night out in the pub is, in many ways here, the epitome of inclusive community living.

I asked them seriously if I could change the tone of the conversation and ask a whole lot of questions. They looked at each other then me and said, 'Sure.' Then I set about asking them how they knew that there was something dangerous going on. What was there about the place, the people in the place, the atmosphere? When did they make the decision to call for a ride? They thoughtfully answered the questions, looking at one another to give assistance.

One of the fellows talked about the sense and sound of the place. The other fellow talked about how the people in the bar were changing, their body language, their faces hardening. Together they put their impressions together and made the decision to get out of there. And they did. They got out of there, missing the brawl, missing the police being called. They left safe and sound.

What struck me as remarkable here was that these two men had clearly been taught some significant safety skills. They were very, very, sophisticated in their ability to read a room and to read people in the room.

This is exactly what needs to be done for people with disabilities to live well and safely in the environment. They defied the 'they are so trusting' stereotype - instead of trusting others, though, they trusted themselves and each other. These are the kinds of skills that ALL ADULTS need, but as people with disabilities are seldom seen as adults they are seldom taught adult skills.

When my inquisition was over, we went back to our conversation, but not before I told them how impressed I was with their skills and with their ability to stay and keep safe. They smiled, not really understanding why I was making such a big deal out of it. Odd how people who have skills never seem to think that those skills are exceptional.

I'm impressed, again, writing this. Are you?


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

No - not really. All the expounding you do on the "not so different" makes me wonder why YOU found it so impressive. Anyone who pays attention can read body language. It requires no special skill. Are you not marvelling at this skill - yet poo-poo when others marvel at the skill of achievement of others? Like the fellow you commented on that was a comedian. I get the feeling that you feel it is wrong to extoll those with disabilities for having the ability to do what abled folks do. Yet here you are. The fellows here were even wondering why you were making such a big deal of it. As am I...

First Lee said...

Anonymous--as a person who would, in fact, have some difficulty reading body language because of my disability, I'm offended by your comment.

round about said...

Anon, did you even read the post on the young comedian. It was about the reporters not listening to him and referring to him, as if he wasn't there, as a tragedy. That post bears no similarity to this one at all. David, I liked this post because I see safety as coming from a set of skills. I do not believe that they are natural or that everyone has them, they are taught and are practiced like all other skills.

Anonymous said...

For some, reading body language and/or reading cues from multiple sources may not be possible due to the specifics of disability.
But I think for many, the ability to read these cues is snuffed out when we tell people to IGNORE the cues.
'Just ignore them when they say mean things'
'Walk tall, be proud, be brave, you have to stand up to them'
'Everyone is kind and lovely in our school/workplace/community' (when not everyone is).
I was told all this kind of stuff when I was bullied as a kid.
We tell people to get on with it when they are in hostile environments. And often in much less explicit ways than the language above. Sometimes we like to teach the world is safe and happy and lovely to people with disabilities (and everyone else- I was racially bullied), when it's not.
I've read about child protection work in Australia that teaches children to notice physiological signs, like sweaty hands, and to learn to label this as feeling nervous or uncomfortable or not safe. And then telling that staying safe is important and what you can do about it.
I think talking about feeling safe, and not feeling safe is key to empowerment.
I do think it's impressive.

Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

Yes I am impressed. Obviously these men were better at reading the cues in this pub than everybody else who got caught up in the brawl and police action. That is impressive!


Andrea S. said...

To second anonymous posting at 02:23 am, as First Lee and others have pointed out, there are disabilities that in fact do specifically make it difficult to read body language, facial expressions, and other types of non-verbal social cues. So, no, NOT "anyone who pays attention" can read language.

I agree with the more recent "Anonymous" posting at 05:20 am immediately above that, at least for people who don't have some unrelated impairment interfering with their ability to read body language, the real problem may be that too many people are taught to IGNORE signs of danger.

This is something that comes up in some conversations I have been in about date rape. Many girls are taught that it is important to be "polite", that someone who makes them "uncomfortable" is not dangerous just socially awkward and that they should just quietly allow the person making them feel uncomfortable to touch them because it's rude to make an issue of it. For example, girls are taught that it is polite to hug and kiss relatives even if they don't really feel like it or don't like it, or maybe are okay with hugging and kissing some relatives and not others. They're not allowed to simply declare that they don't feel like kissing dear Uncle Harry on the cheek and shake hands or just say hi instead. So when they grow older and find themselves in a situation where a man they are dating is touching them more than they like, they find it hard to judge where the boundary is between "okay" touching and touching that they need to speak up about--because they've been trained that their sense of discomfort doesn't count, isn't important enough to pay attention to. And this is just the sort of thing date rapists look for--they look for an environment where guys freely make rape jokes or express skepticism about the idea of date rape (because these are places where it is easier for them to get away with rape even if accused after the fact because these are places where women are less likely to be believed) and they look for women who have been too well trained to put politeness above their sense of judgment about a situation to say something if he crosses the line, as long as he does it gradually (at least at first). Because these are women so well trained to suppress their sense of danger that they might not accuse them of rape even after they have, in fact, been raped, because they may still be wrestling with doubt about "what really happened".

Anonymous said...

This posting gave me a sort of confused feeling. And the collection of anonymous posters didn’t help to follow the conversation. I think I have to agree to an extent with Anonymous at 02:23, but would put in a little differently.

I know that Dave often likes to recount stories from supermarkets, so lets imagine this one. Someone with an obvious learning disability (say Down’s Syndrome) is in the supermarket. He successfully gets his shopping. After it is tallied up, he gives an appropriate amount of money and accepts and checks his change. Someone passing says “he does really well for a guy like him” Meaning that they wouldn’t expect someone with a learning disability to be able to successfully shop. In those circumstances, I and I guess Dave would be saying that this was a terribly patronising attitude to assume inability.

I think that is what Dave has done here and it surprises me. Unlike anonymous I am not saying that the skills of reading body language are very easy, however, I have some problems with Dave’s attitude of being surprised that someone with a Learning Disability possessed them

sandi said...

I got the feeling that Dave was more impressed that someone had taken the time and trouble to teach the skills needed for these men to keep themselves safe. Not that they could actually do it, but that someone had believed that it was important enough to teach and tackle, in an era when many believed that people with disabilities were 'childlike' and 'innocent' and incapable of really learning. And that they had done it well enough for it to be sucessfully integrated into their very lives and applied in order to keep themselves safe and secure rather than be *kept* safe and secure.

But I could be wrong. :-)

Belinda said...

What an interesting conversation. Of course, there are disabilities that make it hard to interpret subtle social signals of facial expression or body language. but on the other hand. My experience is that this sensitivity is also heightened in many labeled with disabilities. People who have lived in institutions seem especially to be great observers of others. I think that what Dave did was notice something that not everyone has but everyone needs, and being gifted in teaching, this will no doubt percolate now in his brain until it is formulated into something of great benefit to many people. He will make the indefinable skill, concrete, and has already begun to do so in this post.

Mary said...

I've never been *surprised* by a scrap in a pub. Or at school. It's hardly an exceptional talent. Okay, some people are better at it and some people can't do it at all, but the same could be said of being a good conversationalist, being entertaining, being comforting...

I resent the idea that someone external must have actively *taught* these guys how to tell when a storm's brewing and make a call on whether to stay or go. Couldn't they just have picked it up through living, through having the pub as a regular haunt, through being able to tell when it's not at its usual vibe, through being social and sociable people? I agree with Anon 08:54 that it's kind of patronising to assume they *wouldn't* develop those skills just cos they're disabled.

Anonymous said...

I think that people who have been identified as "different" and who are therefore more vulnerable, develop a good sense of what is going on around them! When your safety depends on the good will of the people who surround you - you learn to "read" them VERY well!

BubbleGirl said...

My disability is purely physical, and I've been in bars where you cn sense "bad things coming" and have removed myself from them before the bad things happened.

On the other hand, there have also been times where I have barely been able to duck out of the way of a barstool as it sailed over the bar at the waitress.

The crowd-sensing skill is something I feel most people either innately have or don't, regardless of disability, or training.

theknapper said...

This says many people....with/without disability arent able to read/act on potential danger. That they could speak specifically about what was different is so important. Think you'll be repeating this story in your future speaks!!!

Jayne wales said...

I was there. I know the mutual regard and respect from the men at the lunch has not been described fully. From my female perspective I saw so much interest from every man around that table in each other. I think it was a mutual admiration society for the amazing skills and people around that table. I think perhaps it may be a youth question Dave and Joe too. Young people are scary about how they have their sixth sense and ability to walk on water! With all due respect we start to stay in a bit when we get older and just get a bit scared of that bravado!
I just know that the men Dave and Joe talk about certainly have not felt patronised. They felt able to offer advice and an opinion. Dave was interested in them ...and so genuinely. They feel they could stick up or you and Joe Dave really well and warn you if you ever get stuck in a bad place! Woe betide anyone making any bad comments! No will make sure OTTD ( out thru the door) have this to debate...if it is important on the agenda....and post a comment.
Take care

Rickismom said...

both this post and yesterdays are heartening.

Laura said...

I don't think Dave's amazement stemmed totally from their ability to read the room. I think He was commenting on 1. Their ability to read the room 2. Their ability to trust what they were feeling and 3. Their ability to act on it and leave. Too often the disabled are not taught to trust their instincts and to do what they're told. Even "normal" people, especially women are taught not to make a fuss. I remember an argument I had with someone whose son was in Boy Scouts about a verbally abusive scoutmaster. Instead of having the scoutmaster removed, or removing her son from scouts, or calling attention to the situation with the people in charge, she insisted that this was a good thing to help him learn to deal with difficult people. I kept insisting it would be a better lesson to protect her son by not letting the scoutmaster get away with the behavior. All she was teaching her son was he had to put up with the abusive behavior.
Anyway my point is disabled or not it is sometimes difficult to identify a potentially dangerous situation and to trust your instincts enough to act on it. I think the whole package is what impressed Dave.

Dave Hingsburger said...

I admit to being astonished by this discussion, please give me time to think of all that's been said.

Anonymous said...

I do think that the ability to sense danger can be an innate thing. I like to think I have such an awareness. I have been a "watcher" and "observer" all my life--hanging in the background, watching all that was playing out in front of me, and learning from it.

But I also believe awareness can be taught, as I constantly teach/reteach my daughter the safety techniques I have picked up and just always "knew". She is not quite as good at observing and picking up subtleties, so it's my job to see that she learns, despite her inability to gather this info firsthand.

My son, on the other hand, does very well for himself as a watcher and observer. I've tried to teach him as well as his sister, and most often my lessons to him are met with, "Yeah, I've noticed that" followed by an example.


wendy said...

I am VERY impressed.

I really don't see any comparison between grocery shopping (choosing items you want and paying for them) and reading the tone of the room (noticing changes in tone of voice, body language, facial expressions and interpreting them accurately, trusting that interpretation enough to make the decision to cut a good evening short). In fact, I know some people without a developmental disabilty who aren't particularly good at making such judgements.

Anonymous said...

I have worked with people with various issues and disabilities since 1987. The majority of the individuals I have known developed a very good sense of self preservation when living or working in a group setting. It has been my experience that many people learn quickly how to identify who the trouble makers are, how to recognize antecedents (and if the situation is escalating), and when to get out of the way. Survival skills are basic and instinctual. People who do not innately possess or cannot develop these skills generally do not live independently or travel to pubs alone. As for neuro-typical people who do not possess these skills, I would suggest they stay away from bars, concerts and large gatherings (or bring someone like these gentlemen to help “read” the crowd). Am I impressed? If I were their parent or one of their teachers I would be proud, they learned their lessons well. Personally I think it is just another day at the pub for the guys, they know the place, know when it is time to go and left before things got ugly. I guess pleased is how I would describe my feelings. After all it is a normal interaction with their community, like riding a bus, going to a game or food shopping. They’ve got this down. Have a great day all.

SCG said...

I agree with Dave on this one. I am impressed when anyone can assess a situation, better yet, potentially dangerous situation.... and get out before it happens. There are obviously times when it is so apparent that a child could pick it up... But this sounded subtle and obviously a good read by those guys. Disability or not, this is a life skill we should all have. Impressive either way!

Anonymous said...

Not sure if you get notifications of comments. If so, I was waiting for you to come back with some further views on the comments here, as you indicated above.

Dave Hingsburger said...

To Anon above, thanks for the prod, I hadn't come back and I should have. I guess what astonished me here was that I seem to live in a very different world - I meet so many people with disabilities who are over-compliant and under-prepared for real life situations like this one. People who are taught to rely on other's to make good judgements and are never encouraged to make their own. So many people who commented here saw nothing significant in what I saw or even saw that what I saw as skill was something that naturally occured. I have done abuse prevention training for more people that probably any other person in the world and for a longer period of time - I am not exaggerating here. My experience are of a 'people' who are in desperate need to teaching and training in regards to real world dangers. So to see these guys be able to recognize dangers, to determine a solution and to take action was stunning and encouraging.