Guest opinion: Killing me with your kindness

Kristen Cox 02

What started as a beautiful California day was about to become a series of jarring events that had me questioning, once again,  people’s fundamental assumptions. I had landed at the Sacramento airport and was on my way to give a presentation to a group of CIO’s and CTO’s from around the state.

Unfortunately, the events of that day represent the destructive thinking that too often seeps into our public policy and the administration of programs for “vulnerable” populations.

First, some background.

Last year, the state of Utah appropriated over $6 billion to fund social service programs to include helping the homeless, expanding Medicaid, serving youth in custody, and helping people with disabilities secure employment. Ensuring we provide the best services possible is a game changer for the hundreds of thousands of people served through these programs. The consequences of getting our policy and delivery models wrong are far reaching and affect not just the people being served, but their families and the taxpayers who pay for the programs.

You also need to know that I am blind and walk with a long, white cane.

Strike One

The series of events starts with my Uber driver. As I approach his car, he insists on being my verbal navigator as I walk from the terminal door to his car.

“Now go left…,” he says. “Now right a little…STOP!”

“Good grief!” I think. “Does he think I’m four?”

I know he’s only trying to help. I thank him. As politely as I can, I tell him I’m fine, and his guidance is not necessary.

“Just a little bit more…,” he continues, as if I hadn’t said a word.

“I’m fine, really. I travel all the time. I’m good,” I say in a slightly more assertive voice. I want him to know I am perfectly capable of getting to the curb all by myself.

As I get into the car, I hear a distinct “click” coming from the door.I’m now sitting in the back seat. As soon as he comes around the car and gets in, I ask, “Did you just engage the child lock?”

“Yes,” he says.

“Can you release it please?” I ask, incredulously.

“No,” he says. “I want you to stay right there until we get to the hotel so I can get you out.” And, that is exactly what he does.

I am a professional, adult woman with the means to walk off an airplane and hail an Uber. While I’m sure he meant well, he must have thought my blindness removed my ability to remain safe while exiting a parked vehicle. This was strike one.

Strike Two

My presentation went well. I’m back at the airport and ready to fly home. I’m waiting for the plane and need to find a garbage can. I hear someone nearby and ask for help. A well-intended woman readily says yes. Before I can express what I need, she grabs my elbow and pushes me forward. To a blind person, this act is equivalent to a traffic light that provides signals to cars after the fact.  In contrast, if I hold her elbow, I get the signal of where I need to go—I am in no way expecting her to push me forward. My luggage is in front of me, so I fall onto the hard tile in front of everyone. My half-eaten salad—the whole reason I needed to find a garbage can—hits the ground with me. Big strike two.

Strike Three

I pick myself up, wipe off some lingering lettuce, and make my way to the plane. I proceed to board and both attendants ask repeatedly if I need help.

“No. I’m fine.” I reply. “It’s a jetway, I can’t get lost.” I manage a smile.

They insist.

“No, I’m fine. I’ve been helped far too much already today,” I say light heartedly—trying to kindly brush off their insistence.

One of the attendants responds, “Well, I’m just going to come down with you anyway.”

As I walk down the jetway, he volunteers a step-by-step commentary.

“Go slower, ma’am. Slow down. Slow down!”

I keep walking and say, “No, I’m good. I’m a fast walker.”

Ignoring me, he says, “Yes, but this is not safe. There’s a bump! Watch out for the bump!”

Somehow, I make it down the treacherous jetway to my seat while having a play-by-play description of my journey verbalized to me and everyone else boarding the plane. Strike Three.

Helping People to Death

It was a long day of people trying to protect me—people with good intentions who thought they knew what was best for me. People who believed their urge to help granted them permission to lock me in, push me, and tell me how to walk. People trying to do the right thing, but making things worse. Unfortunately, such a day is par for the course when I travel.

Just like my experiences of that day, our good intentions can result in poor public policy outcomes if we don’t understand the foundation upon which our good intentions are grounded. I’ll touch on three categories of problematic mindsets that I call protect me, direct me, and ignore me. They are subtle but can do immense damage to those we serve.

Protect Me

Individuals in this mental trap want to protect us from ourselves. They believe that without their intervention, we will be hurt. They value keeping us safe over allowing us to fail, which often limits how high we can climb.

For example, in 2008 the Utah Legislature passed Senate Bill 16 that allowed the state to compensate citizens who were found to be factually innocent post-conviction. The bill’s language stipulated that the compensation be paid in an annuity—not a lump sum. One senator commented from the senate floor that the provision was to prevent the “lottery syndrome,” meaning these citizens could not be trusted to handle receiving such a large sum of money at one time. Although this sentiment didn’t represent the views of all senators, it was popular enough to pass. Perhaps some individuals might spend the money in a way we do not judge best, but is that really the role of policy makers? Is it our role to protect people from themselves or to give them the opportunities, support, and training they need to live a meaningful life despite all of the ups and downs?

Direct Me

These individuals tell us what to do. They continue telling us even after we assert we don’t need (or want) their guidance. They not only mind their business, they mind ours too.  They tend to underestimate the potential of “vulnerable” population—mistaking differences for deficiencies.

For example, a bright, ambitious young woman in the Salt Lake City area wanted to become an environmental lawyer.  She has a physical disability, and her employment counselor told her to settle on a different career path that would require only an associate degree, because it was more realistic.

Ignore Me

These people don’t even have us on their radar. They don’t try to protect or direct because they discount our value or may not see us.

For instance, if an indigent individual is accused of a crime with the potential of incarceration and cannot afford a defense attorney, a judge must appoint a public defender—professionals who are chronically overwhelmed by their caseloads. We often don’t consider the quality of representation many of these individuals receive because they are not living among us—they may be hidden away in our jails and prisons.

Fortunately, Utah’s policy makers have made great strides in this area. The creation and funding for the state’s Indigent Defense Commission is helping improve defense services for many people in Utah’s counties who are unable to afford an attorney in court. Challenges remain, but these efforts are decreasing unnecessary incarceration and having many other positive impacts on our courts and state’s justice system.

Summary

All three of the destructive mindsets mentioned rest on the common foundation of what President George H. W. Bush once called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” This deeper trap is often insidious and masquerades as being helpful and kind when, underneath the cloak, lies pity and even an unspoken conviction of superiority.

The trap is admittedly subtle. Many are completely unaware of it because they have good intentions and often care deeply about helping those in need. Those of us with a disability or vulnerability do need help from time to time—we all do. It’s simply that some needs are more obvious and different from the norm.

When we are the one who reaches down to help those in need, are we careful not to set up a scenario where those in need remain in need so we can continue to be the one who saves? My best mentors and teachers had the explicit goal that I would not always need their help. They believed I would outgrow their help and move on to new teachers, new experiences, and new opportunities that included both success and failure.

The next time we see a need and have an opportunity to help, I hope we pause—and with a deep and honest introspection—consider our motive, the real needs of those affected, and ensure that we are acting with a clean heart free from ill-informed beliefs.

Kristen Cox is the executive director of the Utah Governor’s Office of Management and Budget.