One of the statements people hear from us all the time is, “We presume competence in everyone.” It’s one of the most important aspects of our philosophy. As we reach more people with our concepts, we’re beginning to get asked what we mean by that on a regular basis. So, I thought I would take a moment to explain what makes this belief so important in what we do.
On the surface, presuming competence must seem like an obvious way of life. We do it with people we interact with every day. When you meet someone for the first time, you don’t assume they are unable to understand you, relate to you, or interact with you. You assume they are competent to do so without even giving it a second thought. Unless, that is, they “appear” to have some sort of condition or disability that causes most people to jump to the opposite assumption. And it’s not your fault! We’ve been conditioned to take this road for years by the very professionals that claim to have the best intentions for those they represent.
How many times have you heard: “They will always have the mind of a 10-year-old”, “They are severely disabled”, “They are non-verbal” – a term they we take as meaning “unable to communicate”, or even “They have problem behaviors”? All these statements lead us to believe the person they are referring to is unable to relate to us or understand what is happening in their situation. As a result, we place them in an environment we deem as “safe” or “appropriate”. It’s rare they are given the opportunity to demonstrate otherwise.
We’ve all heard the stories of the person in the hospital trapped in a comatose condition where they are unable to communicate or react to the circumstances around them. We hear how they had to lie there while everyone stood around them, talking about them more as an object than a human being and not being able to do anything about it. We always have the same response: “How terrible”, “What an awful situation”. Now imagine having to live your life that way, every day, regardless of where you are or who you’re with – even by your own family, doctor, or teacher! You’re trapped in a body where you’re unable to control your own movements or have the means to express yourself in any way and no one seems to want to help. Wouldn’t that frustrate you to the point you might have “difficult behaviors”?
By presuming competence in everyone we serve, we simply treat them with the same respect and dignity everyone deserves. We talk TO them, not ABOUT them. We treat the 30-year-old as an adult, not the 10-year-old everyone has been told they are. We view behaviors as a means of trying to communicate, not a problem that needs to be trained out of them. And most importantly, we make helping them find a voice of their own our top priority. Finding a way for someone to express their feelings, dreams, and desires is the only way to truly humanize them.
Now’s the time when we hear: “But surely you don’t believe there is no one with true mental disabilities that come with honest limitations.” Of course, we don’t! But what’s the bigger sin: Treating someone that may be in that condition with the same respect and dignity as anyone else, or treating those that simply haven’t found their voice as someone who doesn’t deserve the chance to try? We simply choose to treat everyone the same instead of selecting who deserves respect based on our own biases. This gives us an opportunity to open doors for many that would never have been given a chance to look for that door by most others. THAT is what truly sets us apart. You can see it in the way we talk to those we serve. You can see it in what we expect from those we serve. And most importantly, you can see it in the way they respond and the progress they make.