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From sub-human to able bodied: Behavior Training for PWD's

  • Posted by Elizabeth McClung
  • 14 Feb 08, 5:05 AM

It had been a night of sleeplessness and pain: my limbs in rebellion. I was going to be late for my hour morning meeting with Triumph, the Vocational Service for those with disabilities. So I called to tell them. I was told there was a policy, 15 minutes late and meetings were cancelled. There were other people to consider; this could not be discussed. I was hung up on.

Triumph is government subcontracted disability employment aid, part of their job is to educate employers explaining that some people with disabilities will have to wait for a caregiver, will sometimes be late. But at Triumph itself they never asked if it was a medical issue.

So I was going to get there now, naked or otherwise. I made it, knowing the manual wheeling over that hill would cost me later, breezed by the front desk straight to my case manager and asked to file an official complaint of record. It was explained to me that Triumph’s timing policy was internally called “Behavior Training” to try and “teach” the disabled the importance of being on time. There were no exceptions for medical or other emergencies; if a disabled “client” was late by 15 minutes, they were “Behavior Trained” by denial of access. Though the case manager they were to meet with would be paid for the full hour.

I attempted to explain that any time an organization decided to engage in covert “behavior training” of people in their care, it says a great deal about how they see them, or don’t see them as equal individuals. My partner, who works as a manager in a Government Ministry is used to people coming late because traffic, auto accidents, sick dependants, and any number of events occur which make this a workplace reality. When an organization which has the medical file, and knows that they have clients who are dependant on others for dressing, care, or have rapid health variables makes a no tolerance policy as a way of “training” these individuals, what are they training them to be exactly? Able bodied. Are you having an insulin attack which will delay you? That kind of behavior will receive negative reinforcement.

I explained that this was discrimination on the basis of disability; to know and be paid to assist people with disabilities into the workplace and then deny them services because of their disability. I said by their decisions, they held their “clients” to a different standard than themselves. I told them to stop treating us as ‘sub-humans.’

The Triumph Site Manager came in, wanted to know if there was a problem. I told her bluntly this time was allocated for me, my job hunting and I had no time right now to speak with her. If she wished to speak with me, please make an appointment….and don’t be late. I closed the door, forcing her out of the room. She was visibly upset (to make an understatement). And yet, I had followed Triumph’s own model? Was she in need of more “Behavior Training?”

I turned back and again told the case manager to make the official complaint. She pushed the paper across to me and put the pen in my hand. I looked at her. “You are aware I have limited hand function,” I stated, waited and then began the laborious task. It took me over 20 minutes to write the ten lines. The case manager, after watching a time offered to take dictation. I said, “You chose the venue.”

She apologized at the end of the meeting, telling me that she had pushed the paper and pen across because “I had made her angry.”

My case manager is an employed and paid activist for “creating opportunities for people with disabilities” which includes both employment and independent living. She knew my medical history, had a file of it, had met with me several times, and had even worked to procure a voice software program for me BECAUSE of the limitations of my hands. She worked for Triumph, an organization whose states on their web page “our goal is to be highly accessible to clients” yet pushed a pen and complaint sheet across to force me to painfully struggle to write because “I had made her angry.”

There is something so tempting, so easy in humiliating someone with a disability, particularly when you know their limitations. Take away their crutches, their wheelchair and watch them crawl. Refuse to make allowances, refuse accessibility, to accommodate because you can. Even when you are paid to help and understand them, in the end they aren’t like you and if they make you angry, just tell them they have to write it themselves, no not type…write it, and watch them painfully toil. I don’t know if it gives satisfaction, or a feeling of superiority to watch someone strain as they make a complaint that Triumph is treating People with Disabilities as sub-humans.

It is easy when you are paid to assist, to withdraw that, and no one will know. No one will know you used the medical information a PWD gave you to hurt them, to try and break their spirit, or their pride, or what you consider willfulness, or what you see as arrogance. You weren’t even “Just following orders” like the person I was complaining about, you did this because you could and you wanted to. Though I struggled it wasn’t me who lost my dignity, nor my humanity, but you.

I wonder how often someone “makes you angry.”

We like each other, we were a good match, she said she could talk to me for “ages.” Yet her intent was to make me suffer, and to watch it. She felt the anger. She felt the intent and then acted upon it, confident that no one would stop her. Like her organization, Triumph, the method she chose was one where I could not match ‘able bodied’ actions.

I do fear the acts that people make when I anger them, when I show them hypocrisy and treat them as they have treated me. But I would not replicate that, even to an able bodied person who did it to me. I don’t have the stomach for it.

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Even apart from the patronizing assumption that it is their role to apply "behavior training" to the clients that THEY SERVE any more than it would be in any other government agency, they seem to be assuming that people with disabilities automatically need more training just to understand basic job expectations such as "being on time." Which is in and of itself a patronizing assumption.

Some of the power dynamics you see here affect pretty much ANY one who is dependent on assistance. Including non-disabled people who need welfare because they never had the chance to gain the job skills they need or whatever. The abuse there is different, but there's still humiliation, loss of privacy, and yes patronizing attitudes and policies toward anyone who is poor or otherwise in need of help from the government just to survive. It wouldn't surprise me too greatly if they had a similarly strict "be on time" policy with other poor people for the same rationale. (In that case I think it's based on a longer history of observing that some people do, in fact, have trouble holding on to jobs because they don't show up on time or otherwise demonstrate a work ethic. But surely not all of them have that issue.)

this made me sick to my stomach. what is wrong with people? do you think you will ever go back to that office?

i work in an office where we are all able-bodied. there are only six of us, yet hardly a day goes by without someone being late-- as you said, kids, doctors, traffic, illness, laziness (me)-- any of those things makes people late. the fact that you even went into their office at all is quite remarkable, given that you had to work hard to get there PLUS they were being asses to you.

  • 3.
  • At 06:28 AM on 15 Feb 2008, Maggs wrote:

Another variation on treating people with a disability differently!

I, (a so called ablebodied person) volunteer with a group which deals with people with communication problems. What do you think of a committee/responsible person" who approves of proposals from persons with a disability just because they are from a person with a disability? The "lip service" attitude of "being nice" to a person with disability, does nothing for the self esteem of the person when their proposal is approved willy nilly, without following the normal steps/discussion accorded an "able bodied" person. Only then later to have the proposal discussed/denied, as it was not discussed in the normal way and was in fact not appropriate!

"Doing nice" to the person with a disability serves no good at all. Giving direction and appropriate training on the other hand, is something which should be given to all new committee/ volunteers. And of course this also applies to those "responsible" people - just because someone has medical/therapy training, does not mean they make good "people managers".

  • 4.
  • At 01:20 PM on 15 Feb 2008, Anne wrote:

Andrea, yes...if you've ever signed on you'll know that the timings for that are strict as well. However folk on the dole aren't told that's for "behaviour training!" I was very shocked by this story.

I am a person with a disability, also I've signed on and been a benefits officer so I know from all sides of the desk (and underneath ;))My timekeeping was very adversely affected by my particular issue (and still is). It's most definitely not due to a poor work ethic.

However the worst thing of all was that this person chose to punish a person with a disability by withholding help from them that they needed. That's totally sick and wrong and another example of the terrible dynamic our system sets up.

  • 5.
  • At 10:56 PM on 15 Feb 2008, Just A Girl wrote:

This was such a powerful entry, Elizabeth, I have a knot in my throat. Thank you for sharing it.

Disabled or otherwise, it's indescribably horrible when someone uses their intimate knowledge of you to hurt you, whether they mean to or are weakened by anger. I'm sorry you experienced that from the people that are supposed to help you.

Andrea: Yes, it is like first all "disabilities" are clumped together and then they must be trained for for "normal world." It is highly ironic because one of the things they post as successes is that their "clients" have a 82% success rate in being as on time or better than the other non-disabled employees (just look under "success stories" on the website). And I was thinking, "How odd, most places boast how happy employees are, or how happy employers are or the thousands they have placed but this places goes "They show up on time." - well, now I know they really think that is important!

And yes, I think the fact that this agency is subcontracted by MEIA which deals with "Welfare Assistance" might influence their "client" view.

Sarah: Of course I will go back, I went in saying, "Can you get Stephen Hawking a job?" And the last few times it has been, can you get me ANY job, I have five degrees, and taught at university, can you get me ANY job? So, I mean, they might not be so happy I am there but, what is the saying, "The nail that sticks up breaks the hammer and makes people rethink the whole idea" - or it is something like that.

Maggs: Well, in this instance, no worries, I don't think a single person there has an iota of medical training since the previous week, during an "episode" when I was on the floor it was a walking by naval officer who recognized my signal for "Oxygen" (which is strapped under my wheelchair), not any of the staff. It does appear however that some of them are trying to rerun a few classic sociology experiments or psychology tests that used to be done on animals.

Anne: I was really, really shocked when I found out that it was not only a "policy" (thus, the person at the front was "only doing their job) but that it had a name: "Behavoir Training." It was so Orwellian. For me, the incident with the pen is just an example of the Harvard Prison experiment (recreated ala Big Brother) that if people (managers) treat other people (PWD's) as people who need to be "trained" or disciplined, then it is no surprise in a culture like this that individually an action like this would occur; after all, it is almost stated company policy.

Just a Girl: Thanks! Nothing focuses writing like a Actually it was that night I just kept repeating over and over: "She knew....and she did it anyway; she KNEW about my hands.....and she did it anyway?" I just couldn't figure out how you end up on that side of the line. At least not after elementary school.

I think you should file another official complaint against your case worker. That was inexcusable to use your disability against you for any reason, especially when this is supposed to be someone who I assume is hired to be sensitive to the needs of pwds. Unbelievably cruel.

  • 8.
  • At 01:43 PM on 18 Feb 2008, Boris wrote:

This story is awful but unfortunately you are not alone, this type of attitude is found in many of these so called 'back to work' assistance companies. I used to work for one, they are totally money focused and target driven. I am disabled and the treatment i recieved from the company was disgraceful, i was harrassed and bullied by several employees including my manager, but it made me wonder if this person is like this with me what are they like with their clients. I was often repremanded for not achieving my targets even though many of the clients on my case load who were not ready for work. There is no room for compassion in these kinds of jobs, if the client being seen wasn't ready to go back to work we would drop them off the books. I couldn't do that, some of my clients needed more time and assistance than just throwing them into the first job that came along. After a few years of this i became depressed, not only at the antiquated attitudes to our clients but also because of the continued harrasment i was suffering in the job. I could no longer cope with the double standards i was being told to enforce and i didn't want to force people into jobs that they just weren't ready for. I now have a great job working for a very understanding employer but i still can't help thinking that i may have done more harm than good in pursueding my clients to take jobs they didn't want too. I always tried to treat my clients with respect and would never have done what was discribed in this article, but i know people who did and i was disgusted by their behaviour!

  • 9.
  • At 07:52 AM on 19 Feb 2008, Chris Green wrote:

Hello Elizabeth,

Why don't you send your Blog entry to your local MP and whichever Department or Agency is looking after work this week.

I'm afraid that this is a knock on effect of 'Equality' legislation, the attitude seems to be 'you're all equal now, so get on with it and stop whining'.

It always annoys me that the govt sets up agencies and what have you for specific functions then pays peanuts and surprise, surprise we have monkeys eating the nuts.

Trained staff are more expensive and the govt does not want to spend anything at home.

You are a powerful communicator, Elizabeth, why not communicate with those who have the power to change things, if you have no joy with your MP then I recommend Baroness Andrews in the House of Lords.

I found you via Belledame.

I am, for now, not disabled. I have worked and studied at a few colleges/universities, and I've been fascinated (and horrified) at the anger and impatience toward people with disabilities and the attitude of needing to teach pwd to behave differently - all of this within the very offices that are set up to serve this population! I have often heard admin folks in disability svce offices on campus talk about how this or that person has an "attitude problem," which usually means that the person has learned that in order to get his/her needs met, s/he needs to be a squeaky wheel. And the admins don't like being challenged or questioned, so while your story is disturbing, it is unfortunately not surprising.

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