Here’s what we’ve all been taught. To be polite. To be quiet. To not make a scene. To go with the flow. To be aware of other people’s feelings.
Here’s what we teach our children: To acknowledge a person’s presence. To look someone in the eye. To say “please” and “thank you.” To not interrupt. To say “excuse me.” To be respectful.
And it’s all good advice. Until it isn’t.
Sometimes you need to be rude. Sometimes you need to shout and make a scene. Sometimes you need to do the opposite of everything you’ve been taught.
I walked into a self-defense class for adults with disabilities last week, totally unaware, until I witnessed what was going on, that self-defense goes against everything that most of us, especially people with intellectual disabilities, know.
People with intellectual disabilities have been taught to be quiet. To stand still. To listen. To obey. They are rewarded for adhering to the rules.
But men and women with intellectual disabilities are physically or sexually assaulted four to 10 times more than nondisabled adults, a state study reports. So now IMPACT, an independent violence-prevention organization, in partnership with Triangle Inc., which employs people with disabilities, is showing this vulnerable group of people that there are exceptions to the rules. That they don’t have to talk to everyone. Or let somebody get close to them. Or touch them. That they can and sometimes should shout, “Leave me alone!”
My granddaughter Lucy has Down syndrome. She is in third grade. When she pushes someone away she is told, as are all her typical classmates, “No. Don’t do that. We don’t push people. Use your words.”
Participants in this class are encouraged to use their words, too. Words are the first line of defense. But if words fail, they are taught what to do next.
It is Week 10 at Triangle’s medical manufacturing site in Braintree, the final session of a weekly two-hour class. It is show-us-what-you’ve-learned time. There are six students — three men and three women.
Two instructors role play. One is a predator; one is a victim. The predator sits too close. The victim moves away, raises both hands to a stop position and says, “You’re too close. Leave me alone.”
The students take turns playing the part of the victim. “Please, stop. You’re too close.” “Excuse me. Please leave me alone.” Everyone of them says, “Thank you,” when the predator backs away, their manners ingrained.
But as the scenes change and danger escalates, so do their voices.
The predator touches their knee.
And they move away and shout, “Please, don’t touch me.”
The predator traps them in a room and they run to the door and yell, “Let me out!”
The predator tries to get them into his car, and they holler, “Get away. I don’t know you!”
A predator grabs them and won’t let them go.
And the students make their fingers into bird’s beaks and poke the predator (who is now wearing a protective mask) in the eyes.
“We teach basic physical skills that anyone can do under stress,” explains Meg Stone, IMPACT’s director.
Students practice reporting the situation, to a boss, a parent, the police.
“Don’t tell,” the predator says, “I wasn’t doing nothing. I was just fooling around. If you tell, I’ll kill your mother.”
They tell anyway.
IMPACT teaches self-defense and self-advocacy not only to people with disabilities but to children, adults, survivors of abuse, and anyone interested in learning how to stay safe.
“We go everywhere. We tailor the curriculum.” Stone says. “Every year we give nearly 2,000 people the tools they need to interrupt an act of violence. People feel more confident after taking this class.”
Six smiling students clutching their diplomas would agree.