Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Golly Gee Willikers

I know what I'm about to say about her is wrong. I know what I felt when I saw her was also wrong. And though it's wrong, and though I know it's wrong, it didn't stop me from thinking it. And that's the point.

Anyone who has followed my work, or read my book, Just Say Know, will know that I don't like and won't use the term 'vulnerable populations' or ever refer to a specific group of people as 'vulnerable.' I think doing so is kind of a massive linguistic form of 'blaming the victim.' It makes 'something about them' the reason 'something happens to them.' It makes the assumption that a person is, and always will be, vulnerable due to a state of being. The only response to the 'status' of ' one of the vulnerable' is the 'status' of 'the protected.' The term focuses our attention on what we do to protect the forever, and ever, vulnerability of the other. The term focuses our attention away from the fact that 'we, the protector' are also 'we, the abuser.'

I'm proud of the fact that I was one of the first to write and suggestion that protection increases vulnerability. A person's level of vulnerability does not get established at birth but is created by opportunities for learning skills to stay safe, opportunity to practise and use voice, and, of course, for active permission to be non-compliant, even forcefully so. We the abusers protectors keep our victims charges ignorant and docile through our training and our traditions. It's a clever strategy.

Having said all that, when I saw her, she looked so vulnerable. She was 5 or 6 years old, small, thin, frail looking. She had Down Syndrome and her whole demeanour was one of shyness, perhaps even subservience. She was in a tight line up of children waiting for face painting. The line up was long. We had two kids in the line up, a few in front of the frail little girl, and we were told that we had another 30 to 40 minutes to wait.

So that's what we did.

Slowly enough to be torturous, the line moved forward. Just as Ruby was about to be painted, I noticed a brute of a kid stalking the line, she wasn't big, but she had set her body and her face to be intimidating. I became very alert when I saw this kid see the little girl already in the line up, with her arms wrapped all the way round her, holding herself as she waited. Stomping over, she said to the little girl with Down Syndrome, who had been waiting, "Thanks for saving my place," and began to push in to the line up.

Vulnerability, shmulnerability!

"No, NO! I don't know you."

The other girl did not listen and continued to push in. Seeing that her protest didn't work, she turned her body, put her hand up and said, "No!" At this point the other children, who had been aware of the bully but who had not acted, were spurred to action. "Yeah, get to the back of the line!" called out one. "We've been waiting already!!" said another.

The bully ended up at the back of the line, stayed there for a second, and then found her mother and left in tears.

I looked back at the little girl, who looked so frail. I understood something, because she looks frail, because she looks vulnerable, because people will see her that way, because predators and bullies of all kinds will hone in on the perceived vulnerability, she is in extra need of strategies of her own.

It was only later, much later, that I realized something.


Really, really big.

That little girls Mom and Dad, were there, I saw them watching her in the line up just like we were watching Ruby and Sadie. I saw her wave to them, excitedly. I saw them wave back.

When the bully approached, they didn't move in to speak for or to advocate for to to be the voice of their child. They let her handle it. They trusted their teaching and training and they trusted her to be her own advocate and her own voice.

It is never really possible to speak for another person. It is possible, however, to teach someone to speak for themselves.

Even if they don't speak.

Even if they appear vulnerable.

Even if the idea scares the golly gee willikers out of you.


Colleen said...

Love this Dave! Love love love it! So very true!

Anonymous said...

By identifying where vulnerabilities occur, we prevent harm because we focus extra protection and attention there. People who are identified as vulnerable to skin cancer wear sunscreen.

Being vulnerable does not make a person a victim.

Ignoring vulnerability increases risk of victimization.

You really seem to need to distort these things.

Police identify vulnerable populations for the same reason doctors identify who is vulnerable to skin cancer. Failure to identify who is vulnerable opens the door to increased harm risk. The vulnerable label does not indicate victimhood as you try to infer, it actually prevents victimization.

Like the gathering place, the "vulnerable" label decreases harm to vulnerable people. It prevents them from becoming victims in fact. Just as sunscreen prevents some people from becoming cancer victims.

Ruti said...


This isn't analogous, because people who think of themselves as protectors are not like sunscreen.

When people with disabilities are identified as vulnerable, they're also stripped of rights and intensively supervised. That's not safe. People are most likely to be abused by people providing that kind of supervision and control.

And if someone appointed for your protection whether you like it or not hurts you, you can't get away from them. That makes people less safe.

Some people have support needs. No one needs what's done to "the vulnerable" in the name of protection. said...

Thank you for this.....will share with my coworkers.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful - what really impresses me (and maybe this is obvious to you) but in asserting herself, this young woman was demonstrating true leadership - which gave courage to the others in line to follow in her suit and put the "line cutting bully" into her true place!

Kudos for great leadership skills!

Kristine said...

Soooo much applause and props to those parents!! Stepping back and watching quietly while kids work through things themselves is way harder than it seems like it should be. But teaching a child to advocate for themself is a much bigger accomplishment than advocating for them. (There are certainly plenty of times and places for adult intervention, of course. But we should learn to override our intervention instincts sometimes.)

clairesmum said...

Ruti - thanks for your comment. I was having trouble finding words to explain what you did so clearly.
Dave, I did not realize that the idea of people needing to learn how to protect themselves rather than rely on others for 'protection' had a basis in your writing.
I can imagine how hard it was for this girl's parents to hold back and allow her to protect herself using the skills she had learned..and I wanted to cheer for her as I read the story.
All kids need to learn how to deal with bullies and how to be an effective responder instead of a silent bystander...and ALL adults need to take a good look at their own behavior - how you speak about clerks, servers, anyone who seems to have a 'lower' social role than your own, or who has beliefs significantly different from your own - can contain bullying or 'othering' language that implies a permission to treat an individual with LESS respect than you provide to those you perceive to be 'like you.' Creating or tolerating an atmosphere where those who are 'different' are perceived as 'less valuable' helps create the conditions where bullying behaviors take place.
Glad you are writing regularly, Dave, as i missed reading you with my morning coffee.

Unknown said...

To anonymous who said "being vulnerable does not make a person a victim", you're right. Vulnerability is a human trait we all share and its not in itself a bad thing. But identifying someone as Vulnerable is a whole different thing. And thats where Daves perspective is the righter one.

I am a disabled, care dependant adult. My able-bodied friends treat me like one of them, recognising what I can't do and what I need help with without that altering my status as equal to them. We talk about my vulnerabilities the same way we talk about their vulnerabilities, in normal conversations that bond people and communities together. I feel safe around my friends, not because I think they can protect me from harm but because they dont treat me as if I need protecting. They dont make me feel helpless and they dont take away my personal power.Their attitude to me is enabling and empowering.

I have a Vulnerable Adult label on my officialdom files. This label causes statutory people/agency carers to infantilise me and refuse to listen to me, even when I'm saying no to harmful things. I am the same person that my friends know but the lens of Vulnerable changes the way I'm seen and related to and I suffer as a result. I live this experience. I am made helpless by it. It does not keep me safe and it doesnt prevent me being victimised and hurt. And I know many other disabled people feel the same way.

In reality all of us are vulnerable to all kinds of harm. You could be attacked, stolen from, bullied, conned, assaulted etc just as easily as I can, and labelling me as "More Vulnerable" to these life events doesnt actually make *you* "Less Vulnerable" to them, which is often what it feels like people are wanting when they use this categorisation.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting read. I know I am vulnerable in many areas. The difference is knowing, and thus preparing or protecting. It is ok to be vulnerable. We are not super-human. I need you, you need me. A friend of mine is a recovered/recovering cocaine addict. He is "vulnerable" in this area. It could be easy to slip into it again. He knows he is vulnerable and takes great care not to put himself into any place or situation that could lead him off his new chosen path. He is not a victim.

I think those in care are vulnerable, but they don't need to be victims. Systems are/should be in place to make sure. Power and knowledge should given and taught to the people in care to not be a victim. We teach our children about strangers - why? They are vulnerable to being preyed on. (Why did you watch the girls in the line?) We don't want those who may not be able to stand up for themselves to be victims.

I don't feel that it is "we the abuser" - abusers seem to be on an individual basis. Example - not all husbands beat their wives; not all extended caregivers abuse their patients; not all children laugh at fat people; not all...There are and always will be groups of people who are more vulnerable than others. Just ask those being beheaded for their beliefs. Others may have a disability, or be old, or be young, or be gay, others not. There are laws to protect such - and I am thankful for them. As I said, interesting topic.

Ruti said...

Laws to protect gay people increase the penalties for hate crimes. They don't require gay people to have minders who assess the risk of everything they want to do and decide whether or not they will be allowed to do it. It's not analogous at all.

Ruti said...

Abuse isn't just an individual problem. It's a systemic problem. When you have more power over people than anyone should ever have, it's impossible to avoid abusing that power. (Just the fact that you have it hurts them, even if you behave perfectly.)

Anonymous said...

Being gay NOW has laws to protect them. But at one time they were vulnerable - thus the laws. A system is made up by people. It is possible to avoid abusing power. With power comes responsibility.