03 December, 2010

Disabled Staff Person

I think I've mostly written about being a DSP in terms of identity and also aspects of disability that aren't related to impairment, like movement--basically that it is disorienting to always be assumed to be non-disabled or be someone who moves/acts normally because you are staff, especially but not only when staff have an insulting or patronizing attitude toward the people they work for and expect you to share in that.

However, there's obviously something else that makes a DSP different from other staff people, and that is impairment. While I do think the assumption that staff people are non-disabled often comes from just general...um, ablenormativity? is there a word for that?...there's also a more solid reason for that assumption, and that is that staff are supposed to be helping people do things they can't do on their own. So, if you are a DSP (unless your disability is absolutely unrelated to your client's disability, like you have paraplegia and they have schizophrenia) you may sometimes be in the position of being expected to help someone do something that it's hard for you yourself to do without help.

Which kind of begs the question: are DSPs good staff people (assuming there is some impairment overlap between staff and client)? Should DSPs be staff people?

Well, let's try to think first of all what it means to be staff. Let's say there are two kinds of staff: staff and aides. I tend to think you should think of yourself as an aide (it's a word I prefer but I'm not sure if I deserve it). To me the relationship between staff and client is that the staff person has authority, usually because they work for someone else more powerful, and they try to get the client to follow rules. The relationship between aide and client is that the aide's job is to help the client do things that they need or want to do. Depending on the impairment, like if it involves memory problems, an aide might say something that sounds staff-y like, "Hey John, it's time to take a shower," but there will be a different motivation and the aide and John will have discussed when John wants to be reminded to take a shower.

I think impairment matters more if you are an aide. Since staff/client is mostly about staff making clients follow rules, a lot of the things the staff has to do are pretty random and have nothing to do with impairment. In some cases, you could actually switch the client with the staff and the client could perform the staff's job pretty well. For example, at the summer camp where I worked it was a rule that campers (who were mostly adults with intellectual disabilities) couldn't serve themselves at meals. Obviously some people actually did need help serving themselves, but mostly I was sitting at a table asking a bunch of people if they wanted carrots who, if not for the rule, could have just gotten some carrots themselves. And this completely artificial rule added all these dimensions to my relationship with the campers at my table, which was weird.

There's also the fact that having a good relationship with clients becomes more important if you are staff. If John and his aide Sarah don't particularly like each other, it's not any bigger a deal than someone not liking one of their coworkers. They can just be polite to each other because they're both getting what they want (Sarah is getting paid for doing her job, John is getting support he needs). But if Sarah is staff--i.e. she has to get John up at seven every morning to ride in a van to the sheltered workshop--you'd better hope the two of them are really close because John is likely to be pissed off at her a lot of the time.

No one does their job right all the time, so I feel like the measure of whether someone's good at their job is just whether they're good at the majority of the things they're required to do. Let's say I'm an aide for someone who constantly forgets what they're doing from one minute to the next. I've mentioned how extremely difficult this is for me because, well, that's what I'm like except I guess I'm slightly above the line where I get staff for it. I am going to suck at helping this person dress, shower, etc.--if I'm this person's aide I'm basically going to suck at my entire job. (I also know from past experience that I start resenting the fact that if the person doesn't get dressed etc., that is considered to be my fault not theirs, whereas in my own life if I don't get dressed etc., that is considered to be my fault too; and stuff like that.)

However! If I'm this person's staff person, I could be great at my job. I can do a bunch of random easy stuff that my employer inexplicably requires me to do instead of letting the client do it. I also--and yes I feel very creepy saying this--am very good at convincing "non-compliant" people to do stuff, and calming down people who are upset. So my success rate at doing the tasks required of me suddenly goes up from, say, 50% to 90%, in the change from aide to staff person. I become competent, for some very dumb reasons, and at the cost of someone else's freedom.

I think it's very important to explore these facts because there is not very much writing about being a disabled staff person (let's include any kind of figure who offers support and can abuse power--teacher, psychologist, etc.) for disabled people. I have to figure this out for myself. And I think just as non-disabled people assume all staff are non-disabled, it seems like disabled people kind of do too when setting up the staff/disabled relationship as simply oppressor/oppressed.

So let's be clean about this.

1. I don't know why non-disabled people choose to become staff. Maybe they think it will be easy because they have someone disabled in their family who they get along with. Maybe they do it out of charity. Maybe they just think it's fun. Maybe they couldn't find another job.

2. I decided to be staff because I am disabled and it seemed like the only safe option. If I work in environments where no one is disabled, then I end up feeling under a lot of pressure to pass and I feel depressed and isolated, and end up experiencing the whole dissociation and self-injury swarm of awesomeness. I'm also not good at a lot of normal jobs because I can be very slow and don't think about big systems very well. Being staff not only frees me from a lot of these problems, but often provides me with the experience of getting to be around other disabled people, which makes me calmer and happier. I don't feel that I have another choice but to do this kind of job.

3. But it's very, very important for me to think about the ways that my attempts to protect and look after myself can damage other people. I wrote a post addressing some semi-related issues a long time ago--mostly about how I prefer working in segregated environments. Now I find myself thinking about how I prefer (for myself, if I resolutely ignore how it affects other people, which I can't) being a staff person rather than an aide.

So where does all that leave me?

I think there are two directions I can go in. One is to practically accept that I could easily contribute to fucked-up situations (either contributing to oppression by being staff, or contributing to someone's life being a little worse by being a subpar aide), and to decide that I will always avoid those situations by:
    a. being an aide for someone whose support needs are primarily physical, emotional, and/or communicative, rather than cognitive
    b. being staff (i.e. an authority figure) in an environment where I don't think it's wrong for me to have authority--for example, working with kids instead of adults

The other direction is to argue that maybe I actually am a good aide for people who have my kind of impairments, even though I suck at some stuff, because I have more rapport with them and am good in emergencies or something, and that that should outweigh my drawbacks. But I don't know if those things do outweigh them. Emergencies don't happen enough to really become the kind of task that can change your success percentage from 50% to 90%. And like I said--although I wouldn't want to be an aide for someone I didn't click with, and wouldn't keep a job like that for long--I think that getting along with clients is awesome but it should not be part of the job because if you need to use your bond to get them to do something, then there's something wrong with the job. So I will go with the first option.

Next year I'm planning to work as a school aide for kids with disabilities (don't get confused by the terminology, this is a staff person job), and I may keep doing that for a while to get my head straight and figure out what else is okay for me to do. Before you ask, "But Amanda, why don't you just apply to a place that gives people aides, and tell them that you have a disability and you need these kinds of clients, or if you have clients who have certain kinds of impairments, you can only work with them on certain things?" I'd like to remind you that this blog is not a comedy club.

1 comment:

  1. That's definitely a tough dilemma.

    "being an aide for someone whose support needs are primarily physical, emotional, and/or communicative, rather than cognitive"

    That sounds like that might be the best option, but I don't know anything about your field so I don't know how realistic it would be that you could specialize in that way.

    "I'd like to remind you that this blog is not a comedy club. "

    Oh hell. It's a good thing you mentioned that because I probably would have said something like the part that preceded it otherwise.