Friday, December 27, 2013

Wrong Labels, Right Attitudes

A co-worker and I were lamenting some of our mutual observations from work. She asked me to “write a blog post about that, please." So, I did and hopefully you will enjoy it.

Everywhere I look there are caution labels. I am sure a quick search with Google will net a myriad of examples of labels that border on the ridiculous, such as: Caution, Knife may be Sharp; Blow Torch May Burn; or Dynamite may Explode if Fuse is Lit.

I think the biggest danger is from labels themselves. We live in a great big messy world and we like to make sense and order out of the chaos we see. Thus, we label what we see. Unfortunately, labels convey attitudes that vary widely. A wonderful lady I work with gave me a small tin of homemade Italian cookies for a present. I brought them home and the entire family enjoyed them. Almost. For Middlest, the label of ‘cookie’ meant sweet and gooey and probably chocolaty. She tried one of the cookies eagerly and immediately expressed her distaste. Like a good Italian, she threw her hands in the air, gesturing eloquently as she exclaimed, “That was not a cookie! That was....FIG PASTE!” Apparently the Italian in her extends to hand gestures and not to cookies.

My full time job is full of labels. I work with people who score lower than you or I might on some test of intelligence. Years ago, the label affixed to these people was mentally deficient, then mentally retarded, and now, people with mental challenges, consumers of services, or residents.

Twenty-five years ago, when I started working in the field, we had training classes to take, like First Aid, CPR, and Behavior Modification and Control. At that time the Government body that regulated, and funded, the agency, had a history of label changing in order to make peoples lives better.  I would tell you the name of the governing body, but they have changed it so many times, no one is sure what the name really is. In that they couldn’t change the names of First Aid and CPR, they changed Behavior Modification and Control to Strategies for Crisis Intervention and Prevention.

Along with the label change, there came a bunch more rules and regulations. The agency I work for, not to be outdone by the state of New York, added their own policies and procedures. Not to be outdone by administrators, the behavior specialists (these are people who specialize in having behaviors) also enacted new guidelines.

One of these new regulations by the State of New York, was that all employees of agencies like the one where I work, had to take a class called “Positive Approaches”, the basic theme of which is, find the most positive ways to help a person become independent and as productive as possible.

Some time ago, an administrator heard some interactions between staff and residents at a house I was working at once and didn’t like what she heard. The next staff meeting she visited and said, “You cannot use the word ‘no’ when talking to the residents.”

I questioned her to make sure I really heard what she said. “You are saying that, 'No, we can no longer say 'no’ to the residents?”

“That is what I am saying,” she replied.

This lack of insight and concentration on eliminating restrictions misses the point entirely. Rather than concentrating on what restricts people, we should be concentrating on what makes them free and independent.

When we concentrate on labels and restrictions, we get it all wrong.

Consider my friend who had the attitude right, but the labels wrong.

I picked this gentleman up from a visit with his parents that had lasted a few days. He was so excited when he saw me, he couldn’t sit still. He sat in the back of the van, yelling and pounding his fist on the ceiling of the van.

He yelled my name, “ROB! ROB!”

When I asked him what he wanted, he replied, “Rob, I love you, you bitch you bastard.”

Sense of duty pulled me to correct his labels, but my heart rejoiced in his attitude, because even though the labels were wrong, the attitude was right.

At least I hope so.

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