Staff Orientation Learning Modules: Anti-Oppressive Training
For the people we support, they all have experienced oppression as a person with a developmental disability. However, some students may also experience 'intersecting' oppression. For example, a woman with a developmental disability has a higher chance of experiencing sexual abuse (especially because there is legal precedent about the ability of the survivor to articulate their experience in a specific way). An indigenous student may have a complexity to dealing with the label of a developmental disability because of cultural stereotypes. Often these moments are much more subtle, and take a lot of thinking about once the initial uncomfortable moment occurs.
In many ways, the existing policies of non-labeling, meeting students where they are at, and setting up opportunities for independence and value in society are already in line with anti-oppressive practice. For the purposes of facilitating post-secondary education, this way of thinking is often extremely helpful because it allows us to step back from a particularly tense or intense moment with someone we support and see the bigger context of power and oppression that person is reacting to. We become better able to recognize either that the situation is probably not about us, or not about what just happened. It is triggering memories of other oppression for them.
A student is avoiding you on campus and is reluctant to meet to discuss their courses. Instead of taking this personally, inclusion facilitators are encouraged to understand all the reasons why a student would resist meetings. These reasons often come from previous experiences with supports in high school. Students are often very aware of how others perceive them and what receiving support communicates to others. Once facilitators understand these elements they can work with the student to find creative ways to meet that do not set up these dynamics.
Sometimes, this practice is also important in order to check our own power in the relationship. This is especially important because people we work for may be vulnerable and marginalized, and have often been trained to be submissive, compliant and have internalized the low feelings society has about their label to be self-defining. It can become way too easy to let what is inconvenient for you drive your motivations for doing something, rather than stepping back and remembering what the person wants and what is the more inclusive option.
A student has a hard time articulating what he wants for himself. Often, when you go with him to order food or interact with a customer service person, he get shy and asks you to speak for him. While it would be easier or convenient to do so, especially when there is time pressure, it is more important to not do so. This isn't for his benefit, it is so that the person behind the counter begins to see that expecting someone else to speak for a person with a disability is disrespectful.
Understanding Power Dynamics
The big idea is 'who has the power in this moment?' This involves thinking critically about a very small moment or action within the larger context of marginalization of people with developmental disabilities in society.
Students not being held to the same expectations as other students in the classroom
Facilitating inclusion on campus is dynamic and multifaceted. It is important that we understand campus dynamics generally as well as the values and assumptions around disability that can influence the student experience. Everyone, including ourselves, have values and assumptions around disability that can be conscious or unconscious and that will influence what we think is possible. Practicing reflection helps us navigate student life and create new and exciting opportunities for students to contribute to and benefit from student life in typical ways.
Forrest and Pearpoint have written about three 'themes' that emerge as challenges in our daily practice of facilitating inclusion. These challenges are only overcome through continual self-reflection or 'checking in' to see what is happening for you in that moment.
The three challenges are:
Fear is a dominant emotion - and we should recognize it and not be afraid to name it. Fear often emerges as 'is this possible?' It is important to note that we are the ones who are afraid, not the student, and that we are afraid that we might fail. We must try not to let our fears impact a students experience.
This can be a hard one to wrestle with when it comes to the perception of our role, and fear that failure of the situation may be construed as our failure for not doing our jobs well. For example, often we will work really hard throughout the semester: check in with a professor and classmates, set things up as carefully as possible and then at the end of the semester the professor suggests including the student in their class could have been better. It is very, very hard having experienced this 'failure', not to take it on as a personal one and/or to get defensive. This is where the support of other staff can be very helpful, we need to accept all feedback and incorporate it into how we work in the future.
The culture of STEPS Forward is one that embraces recognition of our fears and failures. We are supported to be comfortable saying "I made a mistake because I did not consider everything" to name our learning and to move on to trying something else the next time.
Inclusion means giving up control. When the stakes are so high, and we recognize how important it is that we consistently demonstrate the power of inclusion, it can be hard to let go of that control.
The first and most important place we must give up control is to the student. They must be the person who is directing their lives. This means being mindful of speaking and making decisions for them, no matter how inconvenient it is to do otherwise or if we disagree with their choices. We must choose our words carefully, and say "I recognize that this is your choice, however can I make a suggestion...?"
The second place we have to give up control (which sometimes can be harder) is to the other people in the students life, some of whom may not have the same strong vision of inclusion as we do. We strive to bring people into the conversation gently, and to work in collaboration and conversation to demonstrate the value of an inclusive life for everyone.
"There is no question that inclusion means change. But change is not optional. It is here. Our choices are limited. We can grow with change, or fight a losing battle with the past. Choosing inclusion gives us the opportunity to grow with change. Our motto is: Change is inevitable; growth is optional. We recommend growth."