So I took my kids to our community outdoor pool yesterday. You may have seen us. We were the rag tag group, arguing with Grandma at the admission counter over who would pay, the haggard looking Mom who realized (only after her children requested it) that she had forgotten the sunscreen, the three children who often have to trade one of their shoes as collateral to borrow a pool toy from the life guards because Mom has forgotten to bring any of the pool toys that sit collecting dust in our garage. Indeed we are a full on SCENE. Despite all this, we usually get settled eventually…I open a book, aaaand one of the boys is inevitably clutching their stomachs in mock starvation pleading for a hot dog from the vendor.

The pool was less crowded than I would have thought for one of the hottest days of the year, so we took advantage and spread all of our crap out around us and settled in for the afternoon.

That’s when I heard it.

It was subtle at first, voices a little louder than they needed to be (and trust me WE are “a little louder than we need to be”), thinly veiled condescension barely creeping into the tone, the pitch slightly screechy, and way too bubbly and saccharine…”Why don’t you come in the water Bud?”

As I discreetly looked around I saw a group of adults, lying, sitting, reading, eating, and generally hanging out by the pool.

And I KNEW, beyond a shadow of a doubt this was an outing.

Not because of how they were dressed. They all looked like most of the young people I know and whose clothing choices I don’t understand, so that wasn’t the “tell”.

It was the staff. I could have pulled them out of any line up in the world.

Every sentence they used addressing someone who was a service recipient ended in the words Bud, Buddy, Champ or some variation there of.

My kids noticed, the pool staff noticed, other pool patrons noticed. Hell the Hubbell telescope probably picked it up.

Now, I will admit I may be more sensitive to this because a few years ago (okay A LOT of years ago) I was one of those staff-desperate for the general public to understand that I was the leader, not one of the service recipients. You see this was my profession (dealing with broken people, addressing behaviour issues-excuse me….I had TRAINING!)

It seems to me that sometimes those of us in service provision are all “for” inclusion as long no one mistakes us for a citizen that requires support. We still, despite our best intentions, feel need to create those not-quite-invisible distinctions.

Big audible sigh.

I did it. I may even still do it, although I like to think I’m learning.  I figure this is how my barely conscious thought process must go… if anyone can become a friend, advocate, colleague, neighbour, or ally of someone vulnerable, then who am I left to be? These are the labels I assign myself. I used to think they defined me. (Did I mention I have TRAINING!). Sometimes those labels are hard to let go of.

I don’t know where this group was from, they could have been adults with disabilities, a group supported by our provincial mental health program-but it doesn’t really matter.
Here’s what I know to be true, very often human service staff are underpaid, ill-prepared, and insufficiently supported in the art and magic of community development and facilitation-and it’s not their fault. We all know that staff development dollars are the first to go when budgets get tight.

The kids and I talked about it on the way home from the pool. Maybe there is some hope in that.

P.S. If you are paid to be in someones life-you are not their friend, you can be friendly, like the people you support, if the fates align you may even become friends after a time. But never-and I mean NEVER underestimate the power differential that exists between people who give support and those that receive it. It’s big, it’s unwieldy, and is not mitigated by the use of the word “Buddy”

Fake Relationships for Persons with Disabilities