The Lesson I Learned

What happens when we get a seat at the table?

I thought I understood but there was still more to learn. As a director of a center for independent living, I had pushed for more consumer-responsive services in our community of Washington, Pennsylvania. I had gone to many, many meetings and urged our local leaders to “take action” to improve the ability of people with disabilities to obtain transportation.

Except for public hearings, most of the time I was the only individual with a disability in the meeting room. I thought I was making progress. I thought that I was effective in communicating the needs of people with disabilities in rural southwest PA.

How could I be so naive? How could I be so brazen to think that I could represent people better than they could represent themselves? I became the “middle man.” The bureaucrats seemed generally to be comfortable with me, and I was asked to sit on several advisory committees.

Things seemed to be going well. Or, had I been CO-OPTED? Who? Me? Couldn’t be!

I realized that I could drive a car and rarely depended upon any type of public or para-transit. But, I was egotistical enough to believe that I could “relate” to the experience of people who were stuck. Somehow all the principles of CONSUMERISM, EMPOWERMENT, and DEMOCRATIC PROCESS got all confused with the principle of REPRESENTATION.

Our county obtained a Work-Related Transportation Grant from RSA ($300,000\yr. for 3 yrs.). Suddenly, transportation to work, rehabilitation and independent living programs became plentiful. Local dollars were never committed.

It was too easy. Someone fell asleep at the wheel. When they woke up the program was $100,000 over spent relative to grant funds. Local money would have to bail out the program.

One hundred twenty-five people were given two days’ notice that they were being thrown off the program based upon geography. The phones at the CIL were ringing with the cries of people who were affected.

I had this sinking feeling. I knew that I was supposed to protect my bureaucratic friends from the embarrassment of the exposure of their mismanagement. My role was now to represent the bureaucrats and convince the people with disabilities to accept these “unfortunate events” quietly. The officials were counting on me to act like a professional. It is an unspoken conspiracy against all human service consumers. I almost fell for it again.

But when the CIL staff asked me how to respond to the calls, the disabled woman inside of me answered them instead of the professional. I advised the staff to inform the people of an emergency meeting of the Transportation Advisory Committee suddenly scheduled for the following work day. I suggested that the local press might even be interested.

I will never forget that meeting. A local newspaper reporter was there early. The meeting started with the announcement of the immediate cut backs. The need for reductions in service was generally blamed upon abuse of the program by consumers. I knew better. We all did. My claims of injustice brought harsh looks for silence from others at the table. The conspiracy demanded cooperation.

Slow but sure, 15 people affected by the cut backs filtered into the room. Hesitantly, they individually asked to be heard. They told the truth. They did it far better than I ever could.

When the meeting ended, the consumers had achieved a 30-day reprieve on the cut backs. Time that could be well spent.

After the meeting, I was informed by our bureaucrats in the hallway that my statements were inappropriate; that inviting consumers and the press to our meeting was outrageous; and that I had failed to do my job as a committee member. I was told very emphatically that my job was to “control your people.” My job was to “represent your people” and NOT to bring them to a “private meeting” to speak for themselves.

Life as a CIL director is hazardous. Selling out the people in the name of “representing” them can happen before we realize what we are doing. When thoughtlessly applied, REPRESENTATION is the enemy of EMPOWERMENT.

Author: Kathleen Kleinmann
Notes made on Tuesday, August 8, 1995