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Gordon's D-Zone Arcive (2006-2014)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Learned Dependence

I've spent all morning waiting for a group at a large residential institution to deliver one of my presentations on disability and the social model. The group never turned up and I was told I had come a day earlier. And yes, I was pretty sure that this was the date set which left me angry and frustrated. But I guess the morning wasn't wasted - even if it seemed so at first.

During the time I spent at the grounds of this institution, I had time to reflect. I witnessed the residents, some who had been here all their life, dragging their feet and seemingly unwilling to move that much. True, it was hot... but it was more than that. I chatted with one or two residents and I knew how much I felt out of touch with this environment and the feelings of helplessness that it can transmit.

I'm sure that the staff and assistants working there were doing the best they could. But, inasmuch as dedication or effort they put in, I sensed that over the years - through past administrations - residents had lost the will to choose. And insofar as my past pride would have me feel 'above the residents', I know that if I had lived there for a time, I am certain I would have adopted a submissive and resigned position.

The only tragedy with a life in an institution is not only that you are segregated from the community on the basis of your impairment. But that you are robbed of making real choices and eventually, you don't build a sense of self. After all, isn't your choice and preferences that give you individuality? Losing that would mean forfeiting a unique aspect of who you are.

Whilst many can justify institutions on the basis that some people are 'limited by their impairments', they often ignore that the environment and the attitude of others around you can hinder you from expressing what and who you are. I know that it's difficult to remove long term residents from an institution but I hope that the younger generations of people, especially those with severe impairments, those with intellectual impairments and high complex needs, are given greater support to remain in the community where they belong.

However, the greatest lesson I learned is that much of the dependence we find in the institution is often rooted in learning. Learning that whatever you want will be ignored. Learning that you are not going anywhere if not requested. Learning that the routine is everything and that your autonomy is worthless.

When one staff member mistook me for a resident, I was taken aback. Worse of all, I felt compelled to respond hesitantly as if there was a wrong or right answer to the question - "Would you like the door open or closed?" Admittedly, it was an easy question but the way it was put across made all the difference. And it made me feel that no matter who you think you are, you can easily forget - even for a minute - that you have a choice in what you do.

That's the terrible thing about the whole thing. Learned dependence becomes unconscious and a habit which can be impossible to shake off as the years go by.

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