Care Bear stares do not work in real life

In the Care Bears movies, the heroes could solve just about any problem by speaking truth to power. Whenever a handful of bears cared enough to act, they could get together and give the villain the Care Bear stare. Their intense caring made the villain care too — at least until the next episode. (And in the movies, it was sometime permanent.) Whenever they weren’t solving a problem, it was because they were failing to care about it. The real world does not work that way.

In the Care Bears world, caring is magic. In real life, it’s not enough to care about something — you also have to have power. It’s not enough to know what needs to change — you also have to have a strategy for changing it. Sometimes speaking truth of power can be a source of power; sometimes you need other kinds of power. Sometimes you need to vote, get out the vote, build coalitions, wait for the right moment, make compromises, fundraise, reach out behind the scenes or otherwise find another source of power. Most real-life power is partial, most real life change is not fully satisfying — but it’s real, and it’s worth pursuing.

People unfamiliar with advocacy sometimes cause problems by expecting Care Bear stares to work in real life. They assume that any group of activists who cares about something should be able to get together, speak truth to power, and change hearts and minds with the sheer power of concentrated caring. As a result, when they see that a handful of activists who say that they care about a problem have not solved it, they angrily assume that this means that the activists just don’t care enough to be willing to do the Care Bear stare. When people aren’t solving a problem, it’s important to ask *why* they’re not solving the problem. Sometimes it’s because they don’t care, but often it’s because they don’t have the power to make all of the change they want to make. Often, they’re doing the best they can with the resources available to them.

This also happens in politics: For instance, people sometimes ignore the implications of the fact that the Democrats are the minority party in Congress and that there is a Republican in the White House. They believe, implicitly, that if the Democrats just *cared* enough, they would be able to stop the Republicans from passing bad laws and appointing awful people — and that they could pass the laws that we need without any Republican support. They sometimes reach the dangerous conclusion that Democrats don’t really care and aren’t worth voting for. But in real life, Democrats don’t have the option of using the Care Bear stare — they need power. If we want the Democrats to have the power to protect us from Trump and pass better laws, we have to vote in more of them. 

People also sometimes expect *themselves* to be able to use a Care Bear stare. People stuck in this mindset feel a lot of shame when they notice problems that they don’t know how to solve, because they it must mean that they don’t really care as much as they think they do. It is much more helpful to understand that caring about problems does not in and of itself create the ability to solve problems.  In real life, you won’t have the power to fix everything you want to fix, but you will have the power to fix something. When you accept that caring doesn’t create power by itself, it can enable you to find the things that do — including solidarity with other advocates who are doing the best they can.

T;dr Care Bear stares do not work in real life. In real life, caring about a problem does not in and of itself create the ability to fix the problem. In real life, you also have to have power. When people ignore power and expect caring to fix everything, it creates a lot of problems in advocacy.

Image description: A carton person throwing off-color rainbows in the general direction of a sign that says "Care Bear stares do not work in real life"

Image description: A carton person throwing off-color rainbows in the general direction of a sign that says "Care Bear stares do not work in real life"

A red flag: "I don't want you to see me as an authority figure"

If your boss or academic advisor says something like “I don’t want you to see me as an authority figure,” that’s a major red flag. It almost always means that they want to get away with breaking the rules about what powerful people are allowed to do. They’re probably not treating you as an equal. They’re probably trying to exercise more power over you than they should.

Sometimes authority figures say “I don’t want you to see me as an authority figure” because they want you to do free work for them. The logic here works like this:

  • They want you to do something.
  • It’s something that it would be wrong for an authority figure to order you to do.
  • If they were a peer asking for a favor, it would be ok to ask, and also ok for you to say no.
  • The authority figure wants you to obey them, but they don’t want to accept limits on what it’s acceptable to ask you to do.
  • For purposes of “what requests are ok to make”, they don’t want to be seen as an authority figure.
  • They also want you to do what they say. It’s not really a request, because you’re not really free to say no.

For example:

  • It’s usually ok to ask your friends if they would be willing to help you move in exchange for pizza. It’s never ok to ask your employees to do that.
  •  It’s sometimes ok to ask a friend to lend you money for medical bills (depending on the relationship). It’s never ok to ask your student to lend you money for a personal emergency. 

Sometimes authority figures pretend not to have power because they want to coerce someone into forms of intimacy that require consent. They know that consent isn’t really possible given the power imbalance, so they say “I don’t want you to see me as an authority figure” in hopes that you won’t notice the lines they’re crossing. Sometimes this takes the form of sexual harassment. Sometimes it’s other forms of intimacy. For instance:

  • Abusive emotional intimacy: Excepting you to share your feelings with them, or receive their feelings in a way that’s really only appropriate between friends or in consented-to therapy. 
  • Coming to you for ongoing emotional support in dealing with their marital problems.
  • Trying to direct your trauma recovery or “help you overcome disability”.
  • Asking questions about your body beyond things they need to know for work/school related reasons. 
  • Expecting you to share all your thoughts and feelings about your personal life.
  • Analyzing you and your life and expecting you to welcome their opinions and find them insightful. 
  • Abusive spiritual intimacy: Presuming the right to an opinion on your spiritual life. (Eg: Trying to get you to convert to their religion, telling you that you need to pray, trying to make you into their disciple, telling you that you need to forgive in order to move on with your life.) 

If someone says “I don’t want you to see me as an authority figure”, it probably means that they can’t be trusted to maintain good boundaries. (Unless they’re also saying something like “I’m not actually your boss, and you don’t have to do what I say”.) Sometimes they are intentionally trying to get away with breaking the rules. Sometimes it’s less intentional. Some people feel awkward about being powerful and don’t want to think about it. In either case, unacknowledged power is dangerous. In order to do right by people you have power over, you have to be willing to think about the power you’re have and how you’re using it. 

Tl;dr If someone has power they don’t want to acknowledge, they probably can’t be trusted to use their power ethically. 




Image description: Quote "If someone has power they don't want to acknowledge, they probably can't be trusted to use their power ethically" next to a picture of some power lines.

Disabled presenters tend to face really intense ableism. One way this plays out is that audiences laugh at us when we talk about serious things.

This happens particularly frequently when:

  • Nondisabled professionals or our parents are also on the panel, or presenting right before or after us.
  • The audience is primarily parents of disabled children/adults.
  • The audience is primarily professionals who work with people with intellectual disabilities.
  • We talk about a desire to be taken seriously.
  • We discuss our objections to being treated like children.
  • We describe being proud of a personal accomplishment.
  • We describe being treated inappropriately by a professional.
  • We describe how we felt as disabled children.

When audiences do this, it’s not nice laughter. It’s a way of asserting power. That laughter means “I don’t have to take you seriously”.

As a disabled presenter, it’s often possible to insist on respect. It’s easier said than done. It gets easier with practice, but the practice often hurts. Here are some things I’ve found helpful:

It can help to remind yourself that you know what you’re talking about, and the things you’re saying are important:

  • You’re presenting because you know what you’re talking about.
  • People should take your expertise seriously. When you talk about the things you know, they shouldn’t laugh at you.
  • Your accomplishments are not a joke. People should not laugh or be condescending about them.
  • People who treat you like a baby are doing something wrong. Your desire to be treated in an age-appropriate way is not a joke. People shouldn’t laugh at you for talking about it.

When an audience laughs at you, it can help to make it uncomfortable for them:

  • Don’t smile, and don’t laugh yourself.
  • Wait for the audience to stop laughing. 
  • Wait a second before going on to make it feel awkward. 
  • One option: Ask the audience “Why is that funny?” then continue.
  • Another option: Repeat what you said before people started laughing.

Try to avoid nervous laughter and nervous smiles:

  • It’s taboo for disabled people to talk about disability.
  • Talking about taboo topics can be embarrassing.
  • When we’re talking about embarrassing things, it can be natural to smile or laugh nervously.
  • If you seem embarrassed, the audience is more likely to feel like the topic is embarrassing and laugh to get rid of the embarrassment.
  • If you laugh, the audience is more likely to feel like it’s ok for them to laugh.

Making jokes on purpose:

  • Making jokes can be a way to control what people are laughing about.
  • This can be easier than getting them to not laugh in the first place. 
  • In these contexts, it can be better to avoid self-deprecating humor. 
  • It’s usually better to make jokes about ableism.
  • (This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule though, do what works for you.)

For instance, say you’re giving a talk about educational discrimination:

  • This is self-deprecating: 
  • “I was this ridiculous little kid in third grade. I was so enthusiastic, but I couldn’t even read. I’d hold up the books and pretend. My imaginary friend may have stolen the cookies, but she sure didn’t read for me.”
  • This is making fun of ableism:
  • “My teachers kept assigning me worksheets that I couldn’t do. They kept making me read in front of the class, even though I could never do it. They kept telling me to just do it. And they say we’re the ones who lack empathy and theory of mind.”

Don’t beat yourself up when things go wrong:

  • Presenters/panelists with disabilities face intense ableism.
  • It’s going to hurt sometimes.
  • The problem isn’t that your skin is too thin; the problem is that people are hurting you.
  • A thick skin is still worth developing.
  • If an audience laughs at you, it’s their fault, not yours. They shouldn’t act like that.
  • It’s messed up that we have to develop skills at deflecting ableism and insisting on respect. 
  • It’s also worth knowing that these skills exist and can be learned.
  • It gets much easier with practice, but no one succeeds all the time.
  • When a talk goes bad, don’t beat yourself up, and don’t blame yourself for the audience’s ableism.
  • You’re ok, they’re ableist, and the things you have to say are still valuable when they’re not valued.

These are some of the methods I’ve used to deal with audience ableism. There are others. What are yours?

Tl;dr Disabled presenters face a lot of intense ableism. In particular, audiences often laugh at us. Scroll up for some methods for insisting on respect.

Mean people who aren't mean all the time

Mean people aren’t necessarily mean all the time. Mean people aren’t necessarily mean to everyone.

I think most people who are mean are nice to at least some people at least some of the time. It can be hard to understand that they’re mean to other people in ways that matter if you don’t see it.

One example of this is that many men who are awful to women treat other men well. Some men don’t know this. They often assume that a man who treats them and their male friend group well is basically well-intentioned — and may have a lot of trouble understanding why their female friends think he’s dangerously creepy.

That happens in a lot of contexts. Some of which have to do with socially marginalized groups like gender or race or trans status or disability or religion or any number of other things. Some of them aren’t like that.

Sometimes it’s about in groups and outgroups in ways that aren’t otherwise connected to privilege.

For instance:

  • Jesse is mean, but not mean to everyone.
  • Jesse is nice to people who they like
  • Mostly, Jesse likes people who admire them and don’t contradict them about anything important
  • Jesse is mean to people outside their circle
  • People who are in Jesse’s circle and really admire Jesse might have trouble believing that they’re ever mean to anyone else
  • On the logic that “Jesse has never said anything like that to me; I can’t believe Jesse would say that”. Or something else like that.

It’s not unreasonable to base some of your opinions on what’s probably going on in a conflict on your personal experiences with someone. To an extent, it’s *necessary* to do it that way, because you can’t find out what’s going on by disregarding what you know. But it’s also important to remember that the way someone treats you might not be representative.

For instance:

  • If you’ve never contradicted someone, you might not know how they handle being contradicted
  • If someone’s never been mad at you or someone you respect, you might not know much about how they treat people when they are angry
  • Everyone gets into conflicts.
  • Everyone gets contradicted.
  • Everyone is wrong sometimes.
  • Nobody handles this perfectly. Some people handle this more-or-less reasonably; some people handle it horribly.
  • If you haven’t seen what someone does in those situations, it’s hard to know whether their reactions are reasonable

tl;dr It’s easy to misunderstand conflicts by assuming that people who have always been nice to you are always reasonable with everyone. It’s important to consider what you know about someone *and* to consider the possibility that your experiences with someone may not be representative.

Women are not inherently safe

Sometimes people talk as though men are inherently dangerous, and imply that women are inherently safe.

Neither is true, because women are people, and people make choices.

Women can do anything that men can do. Including the bad things that men can do. Including abuse. Including violence. Women are people, and people can be dangerous.

It’s important to be able to acknowledge this. Women need to know that they have power, so that they can be careful how they use it.

People who have been hurt by women need to know that what happened to them matters, and that they are not alone.

Disabled people have the right to be religious

So, I hear this a lot:

“People think we’re all religious fundamentalists, but actually the disability rights movement is secular and not based on religion.”

And there’s an important sense in which that’s true. Secular voices exist and are important. A large percentage, perhaps the majority, of the disability rights community is secular. (And hardly any of us are fundamentalists or affiliated with the pro-life movement.)

But, at the same time, some of us actually are religious. And being religious isn’t a bad thing - and religion can be a powerful force for justice.

Those of us who are religious should not renounce this power. Religious outrage is powerful. Naming sin and calling for repentance is powerful. Those of us who believe that it is an affront to God to murder people with disabilities can say so, without being embarrassed.

Religion is not the only source of power or moral authority or spiritual strength. (Outright rejection of religion can be powerful in related ways.) But religion is important to many of us, and we have as much right to it as anyone else.

We have been excluded from and devalued in the same religious communities that ought to be championing our humanity. And it’s ok to be outraged by that, too. 

It’s ok to be secular. But, if you’re religious, that’s ok too. People with disabilities have the same right to freedom of conscience as anyone else. We also have the right to speak the language of our culture and our beliefs. 

Disability and power

A group of people with disabilities is not always a group in which everyone has equal power. 

Some examples (by no means an exhaustive list, and not all of these examples apply all the time):

People who are better at asserting power can have more power.

People who speak more easily can have more power.

People who think more quickly can have more power.

People with the most common disability in the group can have more power.

People used to being ok with their disability can have more power.

Power dynamics in a group always need to be monitored and taken seriously.

Restricting the group membership to people with disabilities can be part of the solution, (because it can eliminate the part of the problem involving nondisabled allies and parents taking over), but it can never be the whole solution. Power dynamics exist in all groups, even with members of the same marginalized group.

Short version of the problem with Nonviolent Communication (NVC)

This is the short version of this post and this post:

  • In a conflict, sometimes one person is right and the other person is wrong
  • In such cases, it is important to judge the situation and figure out who is in the right
  • Emotional abuse exists
  • Working to meet an abuser’s emotional needs will not stop them from abusing others
  • Genuinely felt emotions can come from an abuser’s abusive values and mentality. Expressing those feelings can be a form of abuse in itself.
  • It is possible to say horrible things about and to other people under the guise of talking about your own feelings and needs
  • It’s important to be able to judge abuse as abuse. Calling it “behavior that does not meet my needs” is not always sufficient.
  • People need emotional boundaries. Your feelings are not always anyone’s business, and you are not always obligated to care about or listen to the feelings of others.

All of these things are vitally important to understand. People who don’t understand these things abuse their power over others. People who don’t understand these things are incredibly vulnerable to being abused by others. 

NVC culture denies all of these things. That does tremendous harm to vulnerable people.


You don’t owe anyone a platform


Two basic facts about the internet:

  1. Unmoderated comment forums are terrible. They get overrun with trolls, low quality content, and off topic remarks.
  2. If you moderate a comment forum, angry people will argue with you and accuse you of censorship

Moderating isn’t censorship. Moderating is…

shakesvillekoolaid said:

On the flip side, excessive moderating can become suffocating and abusive.

realsocialskills said:

That is absolutely true. It’s possible to be bad at moderating, and to over-moderate in ways that hurt people.

The thing is, if you moderate at all, ever, you will be accused of harmful over-moderating, whether or not it is true.

It’s important to continually think through how you are using your moderating powers, whether they are serving your objectives, and whether they are creating a good platform.

Part of the process of thinking through that has to be understanding that it is literally impossible to please everyone and that you will always be criticized no matter what you do.

Part of moderating means deciding which criticisms to pay attention to and which criticisms to ignore.

To make the place feel like your own, do something illogical to the place just because you decide to. You might move the furniture into odd positions and leave it there or put it back again, or sprinkle baking soda all over the floor and then vacuum it up again, or arrange some small objects in a pattern as decoration, or something. To feel as if you’re in charge and can do whatever you want, and that the place reflects your own individual creative thoughts.

It is not upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it

I’ve learned a lot about rape and rape culture from Tumblr, and now I want to start educating people. However, I am quite socially awkward, so I’m not really sure when and how to bring it up appropriately. Also, how do I make sure I don’t overwhelm them when it is the first time I am talking about rape culture to them? Should I arrange a campaign at my high school or should I talk one on one? Also, I don’t want to trigger anyone, how do I do that?

Students who take up a lot of space caring about the subject






I’m a teaching assistant for a medium-large class (~80 students) at a university. One student has a habit of interrupting me or the professor when we are lecturing, which can be very disruptive. Sometimes we have to cut him off while he is speaking, which feels rude, but we have limited time to teach. He’ll also monopolize class discussions. He’s often insightful and on-point, but I want to get other students’ input too! I don’t know what to do! And I don’t want to hurt his feelings! Help?
realsocialskills said:
This sounds like a student who means well, so I’m going to answer this question with the assumption that he isn’t a jerk and isn’t taking up all the space on purpose. Some students do not mean well derail things for different reasons, but that doesn’t sound like what you’re dealing with here.
Here are my thoughts on how to deal with well-meaning students who take up too much space: 
Make time outside of class to talk to them:
  • When students are really into your subject and monopolize class time, it’s generally not because they want to shut everyone else down
  • It’s usually because they’re really into the subject and passionate about exploring the particular questions that are interesting to them
  • That’s a beautiful thing, and there needs to be space for it, but it can’t take over the whole class
  • When students derail class to discuss the questions they’re interested in, it can work well to say something like “That’s a great question, but we need to get through some other things now. Let’s talk about that during office hours.”
  • This demonstrates that you respect them and their questions and dedication to the subject, and that you will make room for it but need to make sure that the things that need to happen in class time happen
  • That only works if you mean it and follow through, though
There also might be a cultural issue. Norms about interrupting are highly culturally dependent:
  • In some cultures, the way you demonstrate that you’re respecting someone and paying attention is to take turns talking, and wait for the other person to indicate that it is now your turn. 
  • In other cultures, the way you demonstrate that you’re respecting someone and paying attention is by interrupting in on-topic ways and expecting that they will also interrupt you. 
  • It can be really frustrating to negotiate conversation with people who have radically different assumptions about how to pay attention
  • It might be that your student thinks that they are doing what they’re supposed to do, and that there’s confused with lack of response and interruption
  • If that is the problem, it might help to make expectations clearer. If the cultural divide is that wide, dropping hints and relying on politeness won’t help, but being explicit might:
  • For instance, by saying when they interrupt something like “I’ll take questions at the end”, or “Let Bob finish his point first”.
  • This demonstrates that you respect him and his interest, but that you aren’t going to allow it to take up al of the space

It’s also possible that he finds it difficult to follow what is going on:

  • I’m not sure how to describe this, but I know that I find it easy to pay attention to conversations and nearly impossible to pay attention to lectures
  • For me, the things that make it possible to pay attention to lectures are asking a lot of questions, using a strategy like collaborative note taking , or writing notes that are as much running commentary as they are taking down information.
  • He might be asking a lot of questions in order to follow what is going on
  • I’m not sure how you’d go about assessing or responding to that. I am mentioning it as a possible problem in hopes that someone else will have suggestions about what teachers can do if they suspect that a college student is having that kind of problem

No matter how you approach the situation, it’s possible that it might hurt your student’s feelings to realize that he takes up a lot of space and that it bothers people. This is not something you have complete control over. Facing up to problems like that can be painful. You shouldn’t avoid getting your class back on track in order to protect him from that kind of pain.

You should treat him and his interest in your subject with respect, and help him find ways to pursue it seriously without taking up all of the space during class. You’re probably in a position to do that. You’re not in a position to manage his emotional life.

aura218 said:

Fwiw, I was this kid in college. I was just SO INTO EVERYTHING and so glad to be finally taking classes I actually cared about, and I had SO MANY THOUGHTS, that I treated a lot of classes like a personal tutoring session between me and the prof. It took me a long time to notice, in one class in particualr, if I talked less, other students talked more. 

If the prof had talked to me outside of class (NOT in front of other students, and not over email), and used an encouraging and concrete explanation of expectations, I would have changed my behavior.

Here’s what I needed to know: “It’s good that you’re talking. You have good ideas. I have noticed that when you talk as much as you do, other people don’t want to speak. This isn’t your fault, you’re not responsible for their behavior. However, it would help me do my job if you could please limit your comments to x# per session. Also, when you comment and I respond, that’s an indication that it’s time to move on. I’m sorry, but I have a lot of material to cover, so we can’t spend too much time on any one topic. Again, this isn’t a negative comment on you as a person or as a student, and I do enjoy having you in class. I’d be happy to talk to you over email or during office hours if you have questions that you don’t have time to bring up during class.”

People who talk a lot in class can sometimes be very insecure — after all, they’re talking to the professor, not their peers, and they’re working very hard to prove that they’re right. To smart geeks, academics is a safe social environment, b/c they feel safe when they know their intelligence is being shown off. So, you don’t want to shut this kid down by making him  feel badly, but you do need to give a concrete explanation of what you expect (b/c he obv doesn’t grasp social subtleties). So this is an instance when you give criticism couched with positive encouragement on either side.

realsocialskills said:

Generally agreed. The only thing I’d say is that it might not be that he *generally* doesn’t grasp social subtleties; it could also be that he’s from a culture that has very different social expectations. But in either case, being concrete helps.

It also might not be necessary to take him aside to explain stuff - I’d try being explicit in the moment about what’s appropriate first. Partly because of the general principle that if one student visibly doesn’t understand something, there are probably other students who aren’t getting it either.

It’s likely that there are other students who aren’t speaking up because they know that guy is doing it wrong, but they don’t know how to participate without acting like he is.

sugaredvenom said:

Every student I’ve ever seen do this has been a dude. 

I can’t add anything constructive here except for that men really, REALLY need to be aware of how much time and space they take up.

shulamithbond said:

I’m sorry, I normally don’t argue with these kinds of sentiments because as a feminist it’s a pattern of male behavior that I do notice and I generally think it does spring from the messages society gives men vs. women about how much space they’re allowed to take up. But in this case I’m going to.

Because speaking as an autistic person, this is something that’s REALLY common with us, and it’s not easily controllable. I’m not saying we shouldn’t learn to control it, obviously it’s our responsibility to work on our own behavior so that we don’t disrupt other people’s education. But we get snapped at and ridiculed by teachers and peers for doing this - for doing something we aren’t even necessarily aware that we’re doing. And I’ve seen women on the spectrum do this. I’ve probably done this at some points in my life.

So I’m really not comfortable with shaming this behavior as something that only - or even mostly - *entitled dudes* do. I think men do talk more in class and feel more free to talk on the whole than women, and that’s a problem, but this behavior is not limited to one gender, and it’s not a case of just flipping a switch and becoming aware. There are steps you can take, but it’s fucking hard.

And we can talk about the fact that a guy is probably more likely to be allowed to get away with this kind of behavior than a girl or a nonbinary person would be. To me, that’s how male privilege enters this. But the behavior itself is not inherently male behavior, and I feel weird when people frame it that way because it erases autism/neurodivergence as a factor, as well as autistic/neurodivergent people who aren’t men.

realsocialskills said:

Yes, agreed. There is a male entitlement *version* of this problem, but that’s not the only version. I was assuming the OP wasn’t talking about the male entitlement version, because that version tends to involve a lot more off-topic condescending blather than insightful comments.

Sometimes students take up too much space with little or no malice.

Boys and men who don’t know how to tell when it’s time to stop talking are allowed to to take up too much space. Girls and women who don’t know how to tell when it’s time to stop talking are often harshly shut down, and prevented from participating at all.

There are things that teachers can do to manage conversational dynamics in a class, for instance:

  • Making conversational expectations clear rather than assuming everyone knows intuitively
  • Speaking up and redirecting right away when a student’s class participation is causing problems
  • Offering to discuss things during office hours or via email
  • Cutting off students who are mansplaining, being condescending to you or other students, or otherwise filling the space with obnoxious blather
  • Noticing which students aren’t speaking up much, and asking them for their views

It’s really important that teachers do these things. When teachers don’t control conversational dynamics in a class, one or two students will dominate (whether they mean to or not).


Some thoughts on clinical social work assessments


Your blog is a great resource. I have a question and was hoping you’d give me some insight. I’m a clinical social worker. In most places I’ve worked, I’ve had to do assessments. Even with the most neutrally-worded assessments, clients often…

tardis60 said:

I’m glad that someone in social work not only had this concern but took the time and effort to ask, and ask realsocialskills in particular. This answer articulates for me so much about what I and family members have run into in these situations and explores many issues I identify with. And also made me think about all the reasons why these questions might be asked, all the reasons why reactions can be so uncomfortable, and what it’s like for the asker.

realsocialskills said:

Social work is really, really hard to do well. There’s so much going on in the field that puts pressure on social workers to treat people poorly and take them over.

And assessments are often part of that. They contain a lot of questions that are cognitive cues for views-from-above thinking, and the ways social workers are expected to phrase reports contribute to that even more. (And that kind of thing is really the tip of the iceberg.)

But social workers also sometimes do really important work, and a lot of it is work no one else is doing (the same is true of therapists, which is a similarly problematic field). So I don’t mean this as a general condemnation of social workers - social work is important, and important to get right. (There are social work roles that are wholly bad. But not all social work roles are like that). It’s hard to be in that field without adopting some really dangerous kinds of thinking.

I wish I knew more about how to do it well. I’m trying to find out as much as I can. Because I really, really want to support people who are trying to be good social workers.


Social skills for autonomous people: The word “institution”



In a disability context, “institution” means something like “an organization that keeps disabled folks separate from mainstream society and under the control of others”.

It used to be fairly common practice for families (under great pressure from…

youneedacat said:

I live in such a housing complex. Entirely disabled and elderly, nobody else lives here. Over a hundred residents. Everyone in town thinks we are a nursing home.
We are not a nursing home. And we are not an institution. Not even close.

This is why the building doesn’t make a place an institution.

There are institutions that don’t look like “institutional” buildings.

There are places that look like “institutional” buildings. Including where I live. That are absolutely not institutions. Even when they’re shitty in other ways because subsidized housing often is.

Things that make me shiver and want to throw up: The “hospital without walls” program. Terrifying. Definitely an institution. But each resident lives in their own apartment in separate apartment complexes. They think it’s progress. It’s awful. I’ve seen similar institutions for DD people. I call them “distributed institutions”.

This is why I can’t give an exact time frame for how long I was institutionalized. I spent a total of a year and a half, roughly, in locked mental institutions and residential facilities. But I was also in community institutions and distributed institutions. This messed with my head far worse than being locked up.

That’s why these things are important.

The place I get services from is sometimes institutional and sometimes not depending on what clients they serve. They don’t believe they are institutional at all. This is dangerous.

But my actual apartment building is not an institution and most people here are disabled. (Whether also elderly or not.) And the rest are elderly but not disabled. The building looks institutional inside and out. People think it’s a nursing home. Etc. And it’s a shitty place to live in many ways, and the owners have even endangered residents in ways that resulted in death in at least one occasion. Still not an institution. Can’t explain the difference. And I have very good institution radar.

Some signs that a place might be an institution



Lack of accomodation for disability:

  • An organization workign with disabled or elderly or sick people ought to have a clue about access and adaptability
  • If they don’t, it’s a major red flag
  • Some examples:
  • If there are a lot of people who need wheelchairs, and none of them have personally-fitted chairs, that’s a red flag. If everyone is using an institutional wheelchair, it’s probably an institution
  • If there are a lot of residents who have limited use of their hands, and no one has any adaptive equipment for doing things like changing TV channels, it’s probably an institution

People conflate patient/client opinions with family opinions

  • For instance, if they claim that everyone there wants to be, but then they only talk about what family members say about it
  • If it’s a place people can be put into by their family members without any attempt made to see if they consent
  • If all the information on a website is for family members or social workers, and none of it is directed at people who might live in or get services from a place, it’s probably an institution

If people need staff assistance or permission to contact the outside world

  • If people who can use phones independently don’t have access to phones without asking first, it’s probably an institution
  • If there are no computers available, or all the computers are in public places, it’s probably an institution
  • If you need a password for the wifi and the residents don’t have the password, it’s probably an institution
  • If nobody has a personal cell phone, landline, or computer, it’s probably an institution

Concepts of functioning levels

  • If a place claims to be a last resort for people who can’t function in a normal setting, it’s probably an institution and it’s probably doing horrible things

Bragging about mundane things as evidence of being wonderful places:

  • It’s very common for institutions to loudly proclaim that they have a pool, TVs, a barber shop, a charity shop people can work in, or other such things
  • If they think this is deeply impressive, something is wrong
  • Things that wouldn’t be particularly notable in an apartment building or neighborhood shouldn’t be particularly notable just because elderly or disabled people are involved
  • If people think they are, it’s probably an institution, and it’s probably intentionally confusing clients about what it means to be free and in the community

If people involved are required to regularly praise it

  • Everyone is disgruntled with workplaces or other aspects of their life sometimes
  • Free people express this sometimes
  • If everyone involved in an organization says it’s wonderful, and you can’t find anything people it serves are willing to complain about, something is wrong
  • This is particularly the case if the wall or website is full of testimonials about how great it is
  • And also particularly the case if people are regularly required to sing songs praising the place

If there isn’t serious regard for the privacy of people the organization serves

  • For instance, if there is a description of every single resident and their activities available on a public website, something is wrong
  • If you are brought into someone’s room without their freely given consent just so you can see what the rooms look like, it’s probably an institution

andreashettle said

One disability rights advocate and blogger, Dave Hinsburger http://davehingsburger.blogspot.com, has proposed what he calls (if I remember right) the “midnight burrito test”: Can a resident wake up in the middle of the night and zap themselves a burrito for a late night snack just because they feel like it?  If no, then it is probably an institution.

He discussed that in an issue of his organization’s newsletter for direct support workers.

Relevant quote:

With power comes the temptation of tyranny. We can end up saying “no” because we can … not because we need to. Every time someone asks for permission, for information, for assistance, the imbalance of power becomes greater. Their need of something from you, therefore, exacerbates the already existing hierarchy that comes with the role of support provider.

Have you ever heard of the ‘burrito test?’ I hadn’t until recently when someone posted a comment on my blog regarding the issues of power, control and food. The Burrito Test is stated quite simply, again from the comment on my blog: “Can the resident make and eat a microwave burrito at midnight if they so desire?” This comment has resulted in me having several conversations that I would never have had before. Most people I spoke to, from several different agencies, after careful consideration said the answer would be, in most cases, “No.” 


Social skills for autonomous people: Noticing power


How do you know if you have power over someone? There are times when it’s obvious, of course, like if you’re someone’s employer or teacher or caretaker. But if you don’t have any power over them in any official capacity, you can still have…

vinylharem said:

I have found that not having a particularly noticeable regional accent and being relatively comfortable with using Fancy Words means that people unsettlingly often treat my opinions as having more weight. I’ve always been poor and have hilariously low self-esteem so I just don’t think of myself as having that sort of credibility, but it has very little to do with me as a person. I sound “posh” relative to a lot of people, and that affects how the things I say are read, whether it’s “knows what she’s talking about” or “snotty cow”.

realsocialskills said:

That’s true. Using words that way creates a certain kind of power.

And even when people are thinking “snotty cow” or somesuch insulting thing about you, they can sometimes *at the same time* think that your words have more weight and feel bad about themselves.

Resentment, contempt, and feeling inferior can go together.

Noticing power

Anonymous asked:
How do you know if you have power over someone? There are times when it’s obvious, of course, like if you’re someone’s employer or teacher or caretaker. But if you don’t have any power over them in any official capacity, you can still have power over them in other ways that are less obvious. But sometimes I find it hard to tell if someone thinks of themselves as my equal or not, when I don’t have official power over them. Sorry, I know this is probably a stupid question.

realsocialskills said:

This isn’t a stupid question. It’s complicated. There’s no simple way to be sure. Power is something you have to always be noticing.

Some situations in which you have power (not exhaustive; but some things I know about):

  • Someone is financially dependent on you
  • (Including situations in which you’re letting a friend stay with you because they have no other place to go)
  • Someone has been socialized to never say no, and wants to please you
  • Someone you know damaging secrets about, especially if they don’t know any of yours
  • When you’re a senior member of a profession and they’re new
  • You’re interacting with someone who has been socialized not to be able to say no to you
  • You’re much older than the other person, but still young enough to have social power
  • The person you are interacting with lives in a nursing home
  • You are a mental health professional who is likely to be believed if you say someone is suicidal or otherwise in need of coerced treatment (especially if you are that person’s doctor or therapist, but even if you’re not)
  • You’re clergy or have a related kind of religious status
  • You’re bigger and stronger than the other person

The word “institution”

In a disability context, “institution” means something like “an organization that keeps disabled folks separate from mainstream society and under the control of others”.

It used to be fairly common practice for families (under great pressure from doctors and state authorities) to send their disabled children to residential institutions and then have no further relationship with them. That’s fallen out of favor in the past couple of decades, but a lot of the underlying power dynamics remain in service providers in other settings.

For instance, group homes are often referred to as being “living in the community” rather than “institutions”, but they also often have identical power dynamics.

Similarly, some places will say that they are not institutions but are rather “intentional communities” or some sort of utopian village because they are farms and cottages rather than big harshly lit buildings. But again, they have the same power dynamics.

The power dynamics can be hard to spot if you don’t know how to look for them, because a lot of institutions will go out of their way to pretend they’re doing something fundamentally different.

Some thoughts on working for friends

Working for friends can destroy the friendship really easily. It can work out well, but it is risky. It’s important to not just assume that it will work out fine because you like each other.

An equal friendship is a very different type of relationship than employer-employee. Having both relationships with someone is complicated.

There are three major things I know of that can happen:

The boss uses their position as an employer to pressure their friends into doing things that aren’t work-related, or aren’t within the employee’s actual duties.

  • eg: getting a friend to plan the office Christmas party and cook all the food
  • getting a friend to cover lots of shifts that other people flake on

The worker relies on the friendship to get away with things that aren’t normally acceptable from an employee.

  • eg: stealing stuff from the office
  • talking down to other workers
  • bossing around coworkers inappropriately
  • or having a much better work schedule than everyone else
  • or showing up late all the time
  • or, more generally speaking, using friendship to avoid criticism
  • including taking it personally when the boss-friend says they’re doing something wrong

If you’re working for a friend, or employing a friend, make sure you can handle the different power relationship that goes along with employment. And that you can keep track of which things are work contexts, and which things are friendship contexts.