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.”

Election 2016

Rarely if ever have I posted something overtly political, but this is too long and complicated for Facebook and I believe it needs to be said.

Millions of us are shocked and heart-broken over the results of the U.S. presidential election. The sentiment expressed by many is that hate triumphed over good and misogyny, racism and bigotry ruled the day. Characterizations of the winning side have been harsh, angry and negative.

Guess what? Those who support Trump would use equally negative, hateful words to describe us. They believe we are a bunch of selfish, godless deviants determined to destroy this country. When our negativity comes up against theirs, what happens is a deepening of the divide that exists in the social fabric of our country.

Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” It is time for all of us to pick our words carefully, to use language that is not laden with judgment and loathing, and to try and find our common ground.

People worry about what Trump winning teaches our children and I think that’s a valid concern. What does our reaction to his victory teach them?

The question repeated over and over is this: How did we not see this coming? Blaming it on pundits and pollsters, politicos and journalists misses the larger lesson that will be hard for us to swallow. We weren’t listening. A large segment of American society was trying to tell us something about what it means to be them, to articulate an experience foreign to our own. Not only did we not hear them, but we often silenced them.  Instead of practicing tolerance, instead of trying to understand, instead of meeting them on their own territory, we blocked them out, shot them down and shut them up.

When you are fighting with your sibling, friend or spouse and neither of you are listening to each other, what happens? The conflict doesn’t get resolved, people’s feelings get hurt and everyone suffers.

We lost. A silenced group of people came out, exercised their right to choose our country’s destiny and finally they were heard. We can either respond with the same old loaded language that got us here in the first place or we can realize we missed something incredibly important and significant and start to figure out what it is and what common ground we can share.

Yes, they might believe things that are misogynistic, racist and bigoted. They may want to purge the country of anyone who isn’t white, able-bodied and Christian. Their beliefs scare me spitless. Increases in suicides, violence against marginalized group members and prevalence of hate-based graffiti leave me cold down to the marrow of my bones. Tolerance, though, is not about how we treat those who agree with us. It’s about how we treat those who do not agree with us, who believe things that make us sick. Fight policies that engender racism, misogyny and bigotry. Demonstrate basic respect for those who believe these things to be right. I think the expression is, “Hate the sin, not the sinner.”

Mourn our loss. Cry, scream and be devastated. Hug your friends, find community and find your strength. Then, take a moment to consider how you would want the “other side” to behave if Secretary Clinton had won and do that. Not what you think they would have done. What you would have wanted them to do. “Go high.”

I found this article to do a great job of offering context and articulating a path forward. Knowing the pop culture references is not necessary to understand the author’s points.


What He Said

I could not have put this better myself if I tried for a week.


Service Models

Whether governmental or private, agencies aiming to help people function on the principle of doing the greatest good for the greatest number. Whatever their niche, their goal is to provide services and support to as many as possible. It becomes a formula composed of maximizing benefit while husbanding resources all targeted at the typical person trying to be served. Thus, support that does not attract the target population is discontinued and services not utilized by a significant number of people are viewed as wasteful.

Think about the nature of people with disabilities as a population. Because of lack of access, we often are not engaged in community life. This lack of visibility means our need for access isn’t obvious or immediate. Thus, there continues to be a lack of access and we remain undetectable.

Even when we have full access, our presence is still in the minority, especially when we are subcategorized based on our disability-related needs. Because Deaf people need one thing and blind people might need another, we become separate items on a to do list and different line items on a budget. “Full access to all people with disabilities” becomes meaningless to an agency head when the reality of our differing needs factors into program development, planning and funding.

To meet the needs of our seemingly small population, the expenditures of effort to become educated about how to accomplish it and the money necessary to achieve it are high. In contrast, the payoff in terms of benefiting a few people seems small.

When the typical service model meets the needs of people with disabilities, things do not turn out well. Why would an agency expend significant resources to benefit only a few individuals? How can continuing a program that only serves a few people be justified? How do you overcome the seeming illogic of providing services when there is nobody there to partake of them?

I have been confronting these issues for quite some time as I attempt to convince my local LGBT Community Center to make some changes that meet the needs of blind and visually impaired people. My basic plea, “I know there aren’t a lot of us running around here, but this still matters” has not penetrated. They are an agency engaged in serving a specific population trying to make scarce resources stretch to meet that community’s needs. Why bother with the needs of 4 people that will take away from benefiting thousands? Within the parameters of the service model they utilize, they are entirely right.

In the past year, I have also worked with my local Pride organization. Theoretically functioning within the same service model, they have taken a different approach. “It’s important.” While far from perfect, there is at least a desire to provide the services disabled people need so that they too can fully participate in and enjoy Pride.

The striking disparity of the two experiences has been heavy in the back of my mind. The conclusion that finally emerged is that those ingrained in the service model I’ve described do not suddenly look up one day and see the shortcomings of it. Until they do, there is nothing you can say or do that will convince them that inclusion of one disabled person is important in a way that exists outside of resource marshalling, the greatest good for the greatest number, and the bottom line.

The funny thing is this: service agencies are there to help people. The bottom line is supposed to be the business of corporations and accountants. When did the business of helping become the business of exclusion, dollars and cents?A