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Don't Judge Me, Listen

Author: Sam Sly

A version of this article was first published in Learning Disability Today.

Don't judge me; you can't handle half of what I've dealt with. There's a reason I do the things I do, there's a reason I am who I am.

I came across this anonymous quote the other day and it made me stop, think and share with our teams at Beyond Limits. We now have it posted up in each office. I think that it encapsulated the way we should, all of us, approach people especially the people we are privileged enough to support and their families, who have been forced through the social care and health systems, usually never being fully listened to or fully understood.

To support someone well we constantly need reminding never to make judgements based on face value, or on the surroundings they find themselves in, or on the behaviours we are told about; often by people whom have made ill-informed judgements themselves. There is always a reason and if you take time to listen, really listen, you will find out why people do what they do and the reason they are who they are.

At Beyond Limits facilitating the person, and crucially their family, to have time to begin at birth and recount their story, in their own words, is the starting point of a robust service design for the future and hopefully a healing process. It is also important that their story is recorded accurately for posterity and that the people they select to support them read and understand what they and their family have been through before working with them. If you understand where someone has been, and what they have had to endure you can understand any behaviour and you see the person through different eyes. A person’s story usually has the answers to how to support someone well.

I believe this is one of the ways Assessment and Treatment Units get it wrong as they concentrate on face value, and don’t bother trying to find out about someone and their journey and by doing so judgements are made and solutions are missed. If I took at face value the information we are presented with by Professionals before planning begins I would have already formed a prejudiced view about the person based on the deficits and challenges presented and any service would be bound to fail.

People’s stories are always harrowing, there are usually tears shed, frustration unleashed and grieving takes place for what has been lost, but story-telling can help the healing process when people feel listened to. It is often the first tentative step towards families beginning to trust again that the future may work out.

If we look at what people have had to ‘handle’ in life so far, the reasons are crystal clear as about why they do what they do. Of the 20 people we have planned with 13 have been abused, sexually, physically and emotionally either before or whilst in an Institution. These must be incredibly difficult times, incredibly life changing situations that remain with them forever. As well as this people have had to spend years being forced to live with other people they have nothing in common with except the 'challenging behaviour' label. They have been living in places with a daily threat of being physically attacked by other people living there or physically restrained by staff for expressing emotion or breaking rules; rules that have little purpose to anyone outside the Institution. No wonder they have had to learn coping skills and mechanisms to survive and new ways to be noticed and given attention.

People have had their liberty and freedoms snatched from them and have had to endure sanctions of monumental proportions. Imagine having not committed a crime but being locked up and only allowed out into the garden surrounded by 5 metre fences under supervision for years on end. Imagine not being allowed certain things like a private phone, photographs and pens and paper without a member of staff being present. Imagine not being given a release date, or being given a release date and that date fading further and further into the distance because no one can come up with a plan to support you home. Would that not turn you to thoughts of violence, self-harm or suicide?

And for the poor families; they have had to endure feelings of betrayal and helplessness. In one fell swoop they often go from being central to their child’s life to being treated as at best a well-meaning nuisance to at worst a threat that needs to be silenced once their loved one is admitted to Hospital. The lengths I have witnessed professionals try to ensure a parents views are disregarded beggar believe.

They have had to go to meeting after meeting, taking time off work, disrupting the rest of the family, traveling miles to sit with a group of often unfriendly professionals that hold all the power to listen to the meaningless things their loved one has been engaged in and wait and hope to hear that their loved one will be coming home, only to get those hopes dashed again and again. Then driving home to wait for the inevitable phone call from their loved one asking why?

No wonder families become so angry and challenging themselves. Which of us wouldn't? The resilience of these people and their families always astonishes me. So if we are really going to help people, don’t judge them, just listen and build the future for them on what they tell you and not on what you tell them. It really is as simple as that.


The publisher is The Centre for Welfare Reform.

Don't Judge Me, Listen © Sam Sly 2014.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.