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Published on June 7th, 2017 | from CAMH

Words matter

By Dr. Yona Lunsky, H-CARDD Director and Clinician Scientist, CAMH

On Monday I was asked to comment about the private conversation held by two Toronto police about a young woman who has worked with me at CAMH. This woman, in addition to being a talented performer, an educator and advocate, has Down syndrome.

I quickly read the transcript itself and tried, in my scientific way, to give the officers the benefit of the doubt. They made their comments privately and not to her, and they didn’t know they were being recorded. And they didn’t actually really “see” her. It was quick, and it was dark. And chances are, she didn’t say a word in that brief encounter. This is one situation, and hopefully one that has never happened before and will never happen again.

But then last night, I watched the news stories with live interviews of Francie Munoz and her mother Pamela. I heard them talk about what it felt like for them. They were angry, even as they addressed the media with grace, and with an openness to using their experience to make changes. And because I watched their news stories,  I also watched the video recording they were reacting to, which was very different than just reading a quote on paper.

You can’t see the officers but you hear them. Perhaps the part that has stayed with me is not the words themselves, the inside jokes, or the code word “artistic”, but the laughter, and the approval that laughter signified.  It made me feel  angry, sad, and even frightened.

I have been working in the field of developmental disabilities for over 20 years. At CAMH, we talk about fighting stigma. The people I work with clinically and through my research have been fighting stigma all their lives, because of how they think and act, how they talk, and sometimes how they look. This can lead to anxiety, depression, and anger, and it can make existing mental health problems, which we know are more common in this population, even worse. I would love to work together with teachers like Francie and her mother, to sensitize these police officers. But it reminded me that our teaching needs to happen much, much earlier, so that neither of these police officers would have felt comfortable at all with those comments and they never would have been made, not even in private.

I have a sister with a developmental disability, who has also been made fun of, sometimes within earshot, and I will never know how often in private. And just like Francie’s family, my family has fought for social inclusion and all those things Pamela spoke about, teaching my sister to feel proud of who she is, and also teaching her that she can always trust police.

And my sister has had to trust police because they have helped her on more than one occasion. The first time was about 33 years ago. When my parents went to pick her up from her activity at the community centre, she was gone. It was dark, and it was cold and this was before cell phones, internet, tracking devices, and the vulnerable person’s registry.  We engaged police as quickly as we could. With them, we drove around the city, we rode the TTC, searching for her all night long. She didn’t know to ask for help, we will never know when she figured out for sure that she was lost.

I still remember the relief when she was found, at 4am by the police, tired, frightened and confused perhaps but unharmed.  I am still so grateful for the two officers who worked with our family that day and led the search. How they tried to learn from us about how to approach my sister, what was unique about my sister, and how important it was for us that she be found.  And now I think, what if it was the two men in the video that came to our door? Would they take it seriously or would they have a code word for her too or laugh about it in their car?  Would they treat it as seriously as if it were their daughter or sister without a disability? I hope that they would respond in the right way, but now I can’t help but wonder.

Words matter. If it isn’t ok to say something to someone’s face, then it isn’t ok to say it behind their back either. That counts for all of us, but especially people in power whose job it is to support the most vulnerable.

The police officers involved are willing to do anything it takes now to make things right. I am guessing that families around Toronto, and perhaps Canada have some excellent ideas in this regard. Maybe we can take this opportunity to share ideas with one another, in our workplace, in our schools, and at the dinner table.

What ideas do you have?  If you haven’t watched the news story yet, I encourage you to do so. It is very important that you hear the officers’ brief conversation with the laughter that follows to know what upset Francie and her family. But it is perhaps more important that you hear Francie and Pamela talk about it, and how they experienced it, and that you get to know this brave family who has come forward to help others learn from this, and make our city a place where we can all feel safe and accepted for who we are.

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One Response to Words matter

  1. RoseMary MacVicar-Elliott says:

    Dr Lunsky: I love this post! I too have sister with a developmental disability, plus she has a mental illness. Words DO matter – so much! They can be so hurtful.Words reflect out attitudes, values & beliefs. And developing respectful attitudes does start early – with very young children. We need to be able to trust our leaders & people in authority to treat all citizens, especially vulnerable people, with respect &dignity. Thank you for this post. My heart goes out to Francie & her family. They are very courageous for coming forward & helping others learn from this situation.

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