Thursday, July 7, 2016

Respect and Red Tape

Show me where your focus is, and I will tell where your heart is.
European proverb

Before there was red tape there were people of respect, so I will start with them.

I know two very nice mentally handicapped people, a man and woman: call them clients. They have two “supportive roommates:” call them staff. The four are close in age. The supportive staff act mature and respectful, both to each other and to their roommates. I like seeing respect, partly because I can imagine other homes and situations where people are disrespected and devalued.  

I can imagine, hypothetically, there being a lack of respect between the children in a big stressed family, especially if, say, there’s a ten year gap in age between two brothers. During their growing up years the oldest boy might devalue the youngest one: Besides the obvious ways to devalue, he might not care to explain things, or to share what’s going on in his life. The two boys would live in two separate worlds.

But in later years, as grownup brothers and sisters, we all know better. As mature citizens we “get it” that all people and minorities are equal. Nevertheless, I can imagine some adults devaluing people with handicaps. I am not excusing this, especially from non-handicapped staff; I’m just saying this can happen.

The scene: at a kitchen table, wheelchair accessible. On one side, using power wheelchairs, two clients, a man and a woman, are sitting with their feet under the table. On the other side, one of their roommates sits leaning forward, holding his ipad to show them. He is displaying a picture of gorgeous frothy water at granite falls, explaining to them how he had used a very delayed exposure, and a neat lens filter, after hiking past the falls… He thinks they would genuinely care to know about his life, his hikes, and his craft of photography—And he cares for their good opinion of him.

A week later, I chanced to see the man alone, as he was looking through the camera lens of his cellphone. I said I liked how he explained things to his roommates because, I told him, the staff at the client’s Day Program never would. The man was startled: “You’re kidding!” I wish I was.

Perhaps, if I were charitable, I might say the Day Program staff were a little overworked with red tape, and pressured into behaving like adolescents, adolescents who may walk along in a group of three with two of them behaving as if “two’s company and three’s a crowd,” rudely ignoring the third person. But I don’t want to make excuses for them.
Because the man looked so startled, and because I don’t work Day Program myself, I thought I’d better do a “reality check.” The next day three of us were sitting outside on the sundeck, two in their power wheelchairs, and me in a kitchen chair I had dragged outside. We were enjoying the sunshine; I was reading aloud some full-page sports section features about a fired NHL coach (They are hockey fans) I also had them laughing from my book How to Walk in High Heels. I took a break from reading aloud to ask them about the Day Program staff: Would the staff share their lives?

“They are stuck up” was the bitter answer, adding that if a staff had a cool photograph on her cell phone then she would show it to other staff, not to any clients. Bitter. They named one staff, just one, who was not stuck up. ...In fairness, they would have named other staff too if given time to think.

I would guess this is a problem with Day Programs all across our time zone. It’s too easy to devalue people: Not a problem that can be fixed with measureable paperwork. Things like lapsing into using a foreign language in front of clients, is a problem to be solved not by paperwork, but by building an agency culture.

For creating a good culture, paperwork could be a false goal, a serious distraction, a golden calf. Equally bad: Filling out forms during working hours, in front of clients, can be a serious misuse of man-hours and energy—you can’t be socializing and explaining your life and valuing when your back is bent over a paper. Unfortunately, in very recent years I have seen the pressure of paperwork always increasing, never decreasing. (No jagged graph line) The pressure gage needle seems to only go one way. Once the needle goes into the red line, something has to give: And then it’s the culture, and it’s the clients, who suffer.

It makes me shudder, but at least no one’s being killed. I am reminded of the war in Vietnam. Remember? Everyone in Canada and the U.S., including our armed representatives overseas, agreed that communism was evil; we all agreed we had to “win the hearts and minds” of the villagers, converting the South Vietnamese to preferring democracy over communism… but the villages, one by one, went over to the dark side. Such a waste.

Why would the villagers “go communist” even as we were giving candy to their children and patrolling among them? Because we failed them.

Because for us our paperwork was easier to “measure” and fill out. Valuing red tape was easier for us than trying to build the hard-to-measure culture of, say, socializing as an equal to win the hearts and minds.  Instead of "honour, duty country" it was easy to focus on measurable things like the dead enemy “body count.” Easy to create a culture of filling out forms—even as the brave young soldiers in the field thought the attention to forms, especially the wimpy “cover your ass” sort —which the men derided as CYA— was losing the war: The young men called silly forms “chicken droppings.” But who would ever ask them for their opinion?

Easier to default to being a typical “Ugly American” than to think of human equality, or work on having a culture of excellence and professionalism.

When I look at Day Programs across this time zone, I wonder how many leaders prefer ever increasing amounts of red tape, including CYA, for giving leaders external control over staff, including a culture of fear "we have to prove to the government" rather than creating a culture where each staff member is a “professional” having internal control. I don’t know. I am just one small toy soldier surrounded by madness.

Out on the sundeck I cheerfully tell my clients: “The way to learn to walk in high heels is to push a shopping cart at the supermarket.” We laugh.

Sean Crawford
On the Great Plains
July 2016

~ “But who would ask their opinion?” According to history, neither soldiers nor civilians were asked. One day some very experienced, knowledgeable young war correspondents in Vietnam were given the chance, as a little group, to talk privately with the minister of defense, Robert McNamara. Sounds too good to be true? It is. The journalists were forbidden to say anything about the military situation. (Only about the economic situation)

Maybe I’m getting too cynical about our ability to reform, for I see I’ve deleted that incident from my essay Halberstam was a Harbinger, archived June 2015.

~ As for the U.S. forces in South Vietnam, the marines did significantly better at winning “hearts and minds” than the army did. Someday I hope a graduate student will research this difference. (The research could then be used for supporting persons with disabilities in their natural communities, and for valuing communities in the homeland (maybe we could ask if there's a good reason they do drugs) during the War on Drugs)

~ Truly, I have a strong impression the government disabilities department I mention above does not make their new improved plans in cooperation with stakeholders, but instead merely draws up their plans within hothouse government walls, and then announces orders… I realize that sounds crazy; I will not speculate here on why this could be possible. 

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