A few weeks ago, I-ASC held its Motormorphosis Virtual Picnic and I have got to say that every one of the presentations was exceptional! So much so, that one of them, “The Elephant in the Room” presented by Noah Seback and Keri Delport, inspired me to finally get around to writing about something that I’ve been kicking around in my head for quite some time: the role that power plays in human interactions.
In case you missed it and if don’t know him yet, Noah is a nonspeaking autistic advocate and contributor to the community at large via his blog at NonSpeaker | quirkthrives as well as here at I-ASC. You can check out one of his recent blog posts here: Nonspeaking Autistics Can No Longer Show Restraint about Restraints – I-ASC. His co-presenter, Keri Delport is an ally and advocate for nonspeakers, an S2C Practitioner in Training, as well as a Trainee Counseling Psychologist. Keri is finalizing her applied doctorate with a particular focus and interest in the experiences of nonspeaking autistic adults and how they can guide psychotherapeutic practice, this work is so needed! Noah and Keri’s presentation explored how lived experiences, emotional well-being, trauma, and boundaries intertwine for the nonspeaker, and the importance of opening communication to explore this further, including having what they call “hard and uncomfortable conversations.” They talked about how hard spellers must work to develop the skill of open communication, but that it’s not just about getting to open communication. Allies and support partners have got to work hard too, especially at the skill of listening. According to Noah and Keri, learning to listen while sitting within one’s own discomfort is exactly what is needed in order to support nonspeakers on levels that move beyond the boards. Noah and Keri also touched on how important the relationship between spellers and support partners is including the concept of power which really struck a chord in me.
In the simplest of terms, a power differential is the power, influence, or sway that one person has over another, especially someone who is in a position of authority. Common examples of power positions include the so-called “experts” in a particular field such as doctors, counselors, psychologists, teachers, nurses, and attorneys. Those in law enforcement hold a particularly high degree of power, especially when interacting with marginalized people. In the workplace, there is a growing understanding of the inherent power differential between employers, supervisors, and employees. How this gets played out in various situations in the workplace has led to training about professional codes of conduct which have become standard. But the roles of power are not only relegated to the workplace, or to those who are specially trained in a particular field or hold advanced degrees.
Power differentials occur even within interpersonal relationships; however, they are not as easily recognized and oftentimes go unspoken. Why is this? Well, it’s kind of simple, and yet it’s not. The factors that add to or increase an individual’s sway or influence tend to be based on elements or characteristics that the society at large considers “desirable” such as gender, status, age, financial security, and perceived “attractiveness.” By the way, if you happen to be someone who possesses some or even all these characteristics, chances are you don’t really think much of it or how easily your own personal power comes into play during interactions.
*Image is taken from GlobalCitizen.org
Positions of Privilege
The meaning and implications of being “privileged” has slowly advanced into the general social fabric of awareness (at least for the privileged that is; marginalized people’s lived experiences are infused with this awareness.) For the past few years, our entire planet has been reeling from incredibly complex medical, social, political, and economic upheavals. And yet the one through-line has been the following: those who are in a position of privilege, have fared much better through it all. Now, this is not to say that those who have privilege do not experience hardship, loss, or significant challenges in life. This is life that I am talking about here and the only thing that is certain IS uncertainty. But what it does mean is that having privilege gives you an added benefit or advantage for navigating such situations. And in fact, those added benefits are oftentimes inherent, even unearned. What kind of benefits am I talking about here? Well, remember the characteristics that add to one’s power in personal relationships? Well, let’s add a few more to that list by playing a little mental BINGO:
*Image is taken from FundsTalent.com
So how many squares were you able to put a mental marker on? I’ll be honest, when I check my privilege BINGO, it’s astonishing to think about the number of squares that I can check off as being in my wheelhouse, and most of which were not ‘earned.’ Each and every one of the squares that I could put a mental marker on has added to my privilege and given me a leg up so to speak throughout my entire life. Now, let’s zero in on a few of those squares. Check out the box labeled “no speech impediment,” “able-bodied,” and “intelligent.” Just stop and think for a minute and think about what society even considers to be a measure of intelligence…And so perhaps we could write “neurotypical” in this square instead? The bottom line is that privilege increases one’s power, and how much privilege and power one has is not always that obvious. Honestly, most of us who are in such positions are just not even aware of it.
Recognizing & Acknowledging Power
At Motormorphosis, Noah Seback described how the lived experiences of nonspeakers who are marginalized, discriminated against, and oftentimes abused, results in a lifetime of toxicity and trauma. He called for the eradication of misconceptions and trauma and to make emotional health for nonspeakers a priority. He said, “there is not nearly enough communication between nonspeakers and allies to tackle this dilemma.” Keri Delport discussed how it is the duty of allies and family members to really listen and “unlearn” taking the lead for nonspeakers. In fact, the very nature of communication support results in a power dynamic identified by Noah and Keri. Simply holding a letterboard puts that person in a position of power because they literally hold the nonspeaker’s ability to communicate in their hands and that this very dynamic might make spellers afraid to stand up for themselves or speak against the person holding the board who is oftentimes a parent or family member. Think about it. That kind of power is staggering!
Those of us who are S2C Practitioners or CRP’s may have never realized or even thought about ourselves as being in a position of power when we hold the boards. (Many of us got into the helping profession because we wanted to “help.”) And obviously, we would never blatantly abuse that power when supporting spellers; but not wanting to cause harm is not enough. Failing to fully understand how one’s position of power heightens their ability to influence can be as dangerous as straight-up coercion, albeit handed out in a much more subtle and benign manner. So, as allies, what can we do about this? First, we must continue learning and educating ourselves. We MUST LISTEN to nonspeakers and LEARN FROM them what it really means to support spellers on the boards which we now know goes way beyond the actual skills of S2C. We have to realize and acknowledge that there is a relationship between privilege and power and therefore, be particularly sensitive to its misuse and impact on nonspeakers’ lived experiences. But most importantly, we have to start with recognizing the privilege we already have. And we need to admit to ourselves that even though we would never consciously use our power or position for our own personal gain, we STILL benefit just by being who we are.
Debbie Spengler continues to learn about the various roles of privilege she holds in her own life. And a special thank you to Noah and Keri for their presentation and for opening my eyes just a little bit more!
References for Graphics: