uplift.love/what-it-means-to-hold-space-for-someone/Incorporating Anti-oppressive Practice
In our role as inclusion facilitators, we benefit from having an "anti-oppressive" perspective. This way of thinking has been beneficial in other social justice work that involves people who are marginalized by society. It works by examining the ways in which the marginalized group or groups someone belongs to impact their experience in society on an individual level, and in complex ways. Sometimes, this can be a difficult topic to explore, either because you have experienced marginalization yourself (and it's triggering), or because you haven't (and there is a certain amount of natural guilt or defensiveness that comes along with that because it feels like you are somehow implicated in causing the oppression of others).
Every student we support has experienced oppression as a person with an intellectual and developmental disability. However, some students may also experience 'intersecting' oppression. For example, a woman with a developmental disability has a higher chance of experiencing sexual abuse (especially because there is legal precedent about the ability of the survivor to articulate their experience in a specific way). An indigenous student would experience marginalization and oppression as a result of disability and as an indigenous person.
The ways that oppression plays out for students can be overt or more subtle, and it takes a lot of intentional thinking and reflection by facilitators who bear witness to this oppression and the ways that it impacts students. We are also susceptible to oppressing students and in fact, are likely to do so because of the nature of our role.
In many ways, the existing policies of not labeling, meeting students where they are at, and setting up opportunities for independence and value in society are already in line with anti-oppressive practice. For the purposes of facilitating inclusion in post-secondary education, this way of thinking is often extremely helpful because it allows us to step back from a particularly tense or intense moment with someone we support and see the bigger context of power and oppression that person is reacting to. We become better able to recognize either that the situation is probably not about us, or not about what just happened. It is triggering memories of other oppression for them.
A student is avoiding you on campus and is reluctant to meet to discuss their courses. Instead of taking this personally, inclusion facilitators are encouraged to understand all the reasons why a student would resist meetings. These reasons often come from previous experiences with supports in high school. Students are often very aware of how others perceive them and what receiving support communicates to others. Once facilitators understand these elements they can work with the student to find creative ways to meet that do not set up these dynamics.
Sometimes, this practice is also important in order to check our own power in the relationship. This is especially important because people we work for may be vulnerable and marginalized, and have often been trained to be submissive, compliant and have internalized the low expectations society has about their label. It can become way too easy to let what is inconvenient for you drive your motivations for doing something, rather than stepping back and remembering what the person wants and what is inclusive.
A student has a hard time articulating what he wants for himself. Often, when you go with him to order food or interact with a customer service person, he gets shy and asks you to speak for him. While it would be easier or convenient to do so, especially when there is time pressure, it is more important to not do it. Creating space for the student to order builds their confidence and communicates to the person behind the counter that expecting someone else to speak for a person with a disability is disrespectful.
Understanding Power Dynamics
What we want to understand is 'who has the power in this moment?' This involves thinking critically about a very small moment or action within the larger context of the marginalization of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in society. The following questions can help us understand the power dynamics in a given situation:
Students not being held to the same expectations as other students in the classroom
Facilitating inclusion on campus is dynamic and multifaceted. It is important that we understand campus dynamics generally as well as the values and assumptions around disability that can influence the student experience. Everyone, including ourselves, have values and assumptions around disability that can be conscious or unconscious and that will influence what we think is possible. Practicing reflection helps us navigate student life and create new and exciting opportunities for students to contribute to and benefit from student life in typical ways.
Forrest and Pearpoint have written about three 'themes' that emerge as challenges in our daily practice of facilitating inclusion. These challenges are only overcome through continual self-reflection or 'checking in' to see what is happening for you in that moment. The three challenges are:
Fear is a dominant emotion - and we should recognize it and not be afraid to name it. Fear often emerges as 'is this possible?' It is important to note that we are the ones who are afraid, not the student, and that we are afraid that we might fail. We must try not to let our fears impact a students experience. This can be a hard one to wrestle with when it comes to the perception of our role, and fear that failure in the situation may be construed as our failure for not doing our jobs well. For example, often we will work really hard throughout the semester: check-in with a professor and classmates, set things up as carefully as possible, and then at the end of the semester the professor suggests including the student in their class didn't go well. It is very, very hard having experienced this 'failure', not to take it on as a personal one and/or to get defensive. This is where the support of other staff can be very helpful, we need to accept all feedback and incorporate it into how we work in the future.
The culture of STEPS Forward is one that embraces recognition of our fears and failures. We are supported to be comfortable saying "I made a mistake because I did not consider everything" to name our learning and to move on to trying something else the next time.
Inclusion means giving up control. When the stakes are so high, and we recognize how important it is that we consistently demonstrate the power of inclusion, it can be hard to let go of that control. The first and most important place we must give up control is to the student. They must be the person who is directing their lives. This means being mindful of speaking and making decisions for them, no matter how inconvenient it is to do otherwise, or if we disagree with their choices. We must choose our words carefully, and say "I recognize that this is your choice, however, can I make a suggestion...?"
The second place we have to give up control (which sometimes can be harder) is to the other people in the student's life, some of whom may not have the same strong vision of inclusion as we do. We strive to bring people into the conversation gently and to work in collaboration and conversation to demonstrate the value of an inclusive life for everyone.
"There is no question that inclusion means change. But change is not optional. It is here. Our choices are limited. We can grow with change, or fight a losing battle with the past. Choosing inclusion gives us the opportunity to grow with change. Our motto is: Change is inevitable; growth is optional. We recommend growth." (Forest & Pearpoint).
Next: Social Role Valorization