What Vulnerable Implies

I am in the mood to dissect the word “vulnerable” as it is used to describe groups of people. You’ve heard it a lot this election cycle: “The most vulnerable among us are at greatest risk if x, y and z policy are put into place.”

I’m not attacking the concept of vulnerability that Brene Brown has articulated so well. It is important to be willing to risk ourselves emotionally, especially if we want to find authentic connections with others. Vulnerability on an interpersonal level is great and I only wish I were better at it.

I’m talking about vulnerable, the adjective, meaning suseptible to being wounded or attacked. My issue isn’t even with the word itself, but its application when used to describe marginalized groups who are perceived to be able to be harmed because of their group membership.

I find it to be a very disempowering word. Moreover, I find it to be an inaccurate word. There are two general schools of thought about how disability is defined.  The first says that I am disabled because my body possesses a set of traits that make it impossible for me to do certain tasks, so I’m disabled. Another theory holds that those traits are only disabling because we live in a society with a specific structure that only provides for given tasks to be achieved in particular ways with a limited set of tools. The first theory says I’d be disabled no matter what environment I inhabit, tools I’m given or varied ways a goal can be achieved. The second says that I’m only disabled when I’m placed in a specific set of circumstances and that a different set would not make me disabled. The question turns into this: Am I disabled by something inherent within me or by the world I occupy? I would argue it is the world I occupy.

Back to vulnerable. The way the word is being used lately implies the susceptibility of the group is based on a trait of that group. Vulnerability is reliant upon the group definition. It strips away all societal structure, outside factors and cultural context. Children, seniors and people with disabilities are vulnerable because they possess certain traits putting them at risk. From this perspective, people within “vulnerable” groups are almost victims, without any remedy for their vulnerability.

I beg to differ. Our vulnerability comes from the world we inhabit. The laws, policies and practices of our society make us vulnerable. If we lived in a world where seniors were given enough money to live a reasonable life, including access to medical care, etc., sufficient to meet their needs, would they still be “vulnerable”? Similarly, if all children had access to the same high-quality education, sufficient food, clothing and shelter, safe places to live and parents equipped to nurture them, would children be “vulnerable”?

The way our world works makes certain groups susceptible to attack and harm, not the nature of the group itself. When people talk about the most vulnerable among us being at risk in a Trump administration, they are tacitly agreeing to a version of reality that assigns the cause of the vulnerability based on the characteristics of the group. People with disabilities are vulnerable because their bodies work in certain ways, not because they happen to inhabit a world functioning with a specific set of rules. It is like defining how a race can be won so narrowly that most of the competitors cannot actually win.

I have no idea how to solve this problem because I don’t currently have a word or phrase to replace vulnerable. The best I can do is “people made vulnerable by our society.” So, for now, one could say, “A Trump administration appears poised to inact policies that will place those our society has already made vulnerable more at risk.”

PTSD. Again.

In mid November 2013, I stopped writing in this blog. I had another traumatizing experience during a medical procedure and was unable to function normally let alone write anything that touched upon emotions. Coming back to this blog was prompted by a need to learn how to use WordPress on my iPad for the Braille Institute class. Then Braille Institute decided to establish a name badge policy and outrage worked as an awesome motivator.

Now it is time to write about what happened. As you read my recollections, please keep in mind that trauma is often stored in our brains not as narrative memory but as snapshots leading to disjointed recall.

I woke up from a trachea stretch with a tube keeping me from speaking and unable to move properly. There was a lot of chaos around me with people saying thins like, “Jen, squeeze my hand.” Nobody said things like, “Jen, I’m <insert name> and I’m going to do this.” Nobody appeared to be focused on keeping me informed of events or trying to establish a line of communication.

The tube came out quickly. The inability to move properly resolved itself. The damage was already done in the moment when I came to consciousness and couldn’t move, speak or understand what was happening, isolated in a scene of chaos. More trauma came as I learned that the situation might have been avoidable if better choices had been made by some of the clinicians involved.

Upon arriving home, I knew I would have some sort of reaction to my experience, but I wasn’t quite sure what. It took about twenty-four hours before the first signs became obvious. I walked across my kitchen and set the toaster oven tray in the sink. Then I crumpled to the ground in a ball and sobbed. There was literally absolutely no immediate cause for the tears. They just happened.

The uncontrollable sobbing became my life with tears unpredictably surfacing one to three times a day. I could be reading a book or chatting on the phone or sitting in a meeting and tears happened sort of like a sneeze – there are things you know will cause it, ways to possibly delay it, but sooner or later, it bursts forth.

Eventually I learned those delaying tactics, making being out in public somewhat more possible. Sometimes I was even able to identify what caused the tears and what emotions I was feeling. Once in a while it was even related to immediate events and not past trauma.

There is something unique about re-traumatization – having experienced trauma, developed PTSD and been successfully treated only to endure a situation similar enough to be the equivalent. then you are coping with PTSD from the recent trauma along with PTSD from your history of similar trauma. In some ways it is like light reflected between a multitude of mirrors so that the intensity of light is greater than any component part. It’s wildly exponential math. It’s emotion magnified, refracted, blenderized and placed in a pressure cooker with a faulty valve.

My entire life ground to a screeching halt. I gave up any notion of doing anything more than going to therapy, walking the dog and making sure we both ate and slept. I did things requiring use of my hands – sewing, baking, knitting – to fill my mind with something because it left less space for trauma. I didn’t visit my family for the holidays. I only talked to people who didn’t make me more upset. I kept asking for topics of conversation to be dropped before I lost it. Again.

Time passed and I was able to control enough of what was happening to begin tentatively living. Then, I knew another trachea stretch was on the immediate horizon because that’s how my stenosis works.

Part of my PTSD symptomology is that I cave in front of anyone I see as an authority figure or more of an expert in a field. Talking to doctors was harder than… crossing an eight-lane highway without a cane, dog or even audible traffic signals. I did it badly. I somehow got through it.

This time, the procedure went smoothly. With a positive experience the most recent in my memory, my life has settled down. I have been able to resume my regularly scheduled existence, just with way more therapy and a conscious commitment to real down time.

Here’s the interesting part. I’m being put back together in better shape than I was before November 15, 2013. I’m not doing it consciously, but I see things happening inside myself that I know will lead to a stronger me. I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around that.


Responsibility Teflon

I know we’ve all met that person – the one who can somehow avoid responsibility for *anything.* It is as if they’ve been sheathed in teflon and nothing will adhere to it. Ever.

The most drastic cases involve those who frame their lives in terms of things “done to them” that have resulted in bad outcomes. (Ever notice victim mentality is only present when it comes to bad outcomes?) More insidious cases exist in which individuals effortlessly float through life with nothing ever being their fault. They’re just “following their hearts” or “honoring their feelings” or “not engaging in negative self-doubt” or “practicing self-compassion.” In and of themselves, each isn’t a bad thing when done in moderation. Some, however, have raised their use to an art form. In the process, they acquire Responsibility Teflon.

I believe that perceiving me as amazing allows non-disabled people to don this same Responsibility Teflon. I’ve previously mentioned three ways non-disabled people conclude I am amazing – expecting less of me because of my disability, misunderstanding what it would be like if they walked in my shoes and lauding me for overcoming obstacles. Each is predicated on the idea that the “problem” is contained within me. She doesn’t have functional eyes, so I should expect less. If I didn’t have functional eyes like her, then I couldn’t do that. She doesn’t have functional eyes which would make that activity harder. It’s all about my biological difference.

The interesting part is that by making it all about my difference, non-disabled people have framed the situation in terms of my body, my abilities, my interactions, my defects. When it is all about me, Responsibility Teflon morphs into existence.

A crucial factor, how our society functions, is being left out of the equation. My difference only becomes a problem when my world doesn’t take it into account. Imagine if I lived in a world where my difference was accommodated by all information being conveyed visually, auditorially and tactilely. Would I be so amazing in that environment? Not really. I’d be simply another person going about her business.

I’m certain someone is now thinking, “Yeah, and you would also not be amazing if you could just see.” Following that line of argument, if all people were the same color, racism would disappear. If all people were of the same gender, sexism would vanish — along with our species’ ability to exist. Disability is a fact of human variation. Only when our society places meaning on human variation do we have things like sexism, racism and disability as individual defect.

When a non-disabled person observes me crossing a street, they could think I’m amazing for being able to do that. They could also think that they participate in a world that doesn’t take my need for auditory street signals into account. In the former, while they feel all warm and fuzzy for praising me, they are putting on Responsibility Teflon. In the latter, they are skating perilously close to assuming some accountability for the world they inhabit. You know, the same one I have to function in?