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Issue 2


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Same, Different, Human

A review by Cal Montgomery.

FIRST CONTACT: CHARTING INNER SPACE, by Dave Hingsburger. Eastman, Quebec: Diverse City Press (33 des Floralies, Eastman, Quebec, CANADA J0E 1P0 (877) 246-5226, www.diverse-city.com), 2000. Softcover, 36 pages, $5.00.

A LITTLE BEHIND, by Dave Hingsburger. Eastman, Quebec: Diverse City Press, 2000. Softcover, 114 pages, $15.00.

POWER TOOLS, by Dave Hingsburger. Eastman, Quebec: Diverse City Press, 2000. Softcover, 36 pages, $5.00.

Maybe it's just an accident of history, my fondness for Dave Hingsburger's work. "You gotta read this book," I catch myself saying, over and over again. "Here, lemme write it down for you. Do you need the URL of a place you can get it?" There are a lot of books I love, a lot of writers I admire, but I've noticed over the past year that the titles I bother to write down for people are his more often than not.

On the web:

Diverse City Press: www.diverse-city.com

Mouth's Attitude Store sells many of his books -- they can be hard to find

"Cutting the Strings," an article from A LITTLE BEHIND

Maybe it's just that he evokes so clearly places like those I've known. Places I have loved and places I have loathed. Places that come to me in dreams. In nightmares. In flashbacks.

Maybe it's just that he writes so directly to and about people like those I have known. Loved. Been.

Maybe it's just that I live among those who would prefer to pass over certain places, certain problems, certain people. Maybe it's just that Dave -- more and more he writes with a first-name intimacy -- plants himself directly in the midst of precisely those people, places, problems; and he writes from there.

Maybe I've acquired a small collection of Hingsburger's narrow volumes because an accident of my history and his allows him to write about that which I still struggle to say. Maybe.

I hope not.

There are two small books -- pamphlets, almost -- on the desk before me as I write. They are described as "thoughts about power & control in service to people with developmental disabilities" (Power Tools) and "thoughts about establishing contact with people who have significant developmental disabilities" (First Contact).

These books are in the tradition of Hingsburger's earlier books Just Say Know! (1995), Behaviour Self! (1996), and Do? Be? Do? (1998): they are addressed to human services staff concerned with doing their jobs both proficiently and morally. Nearby, face-down and open to page 99 ("I remember the first time I measured a wound . . .") is a collection of "articles for challenge, change, and catching up" (A Little Behind).

Less obviously instructive and more introspective than the first two, this book continues to develop the themes evident in such works as I Witness (1992) and A Real Nice But . . . (1999): Hingsburger's own moral development as a human being in relationship with other human beings.

And just as the earlier books have stood up to multiple readings, just as they have continued to challenge and stimulate me as my own thought has developed, I expect that these three new books will be valued additions to my shelf -- to the shelf of any reader concerned with disability rights.

This might not be immediately apparent. The subject matter may appear limited to the service systems concerned with people with intellectual impairments, and Hingsburger's focus is the individual rather than society. Nonetheless, I commend these books to you.

I read Dave Hingsburger as an ethicist. Not an ivory-tower Ivy League ethicist, mind you, but rather one who worries how to live well amid the blood, the shit, and the chains that surround him. Instead of offering moral axioms from some fake-objective standpoint and then applying them to whitewashed situations, he acknowledges the ways in which the commitments he has made and the messy situations in which he finds himself shape his moral development and his moral outlook.

Many of the other writers on my shelf take a political approach to the problems of power and powerlessness, to the problem of disability, asking how communities, organizations, nations should act. What does justice demand? they ask. How can we address injustice?

Hingsburger's stance is more ethical than political, though it is also concerned with disability. How, he asks, should I, an individual, respond to the people around me? Very often, the people around him, the people to whom he is responding, are disabled people. It's not that he pretends injustice away, or that he treats it as irrelevant; it's just that even when he addresses injustice, he confronts it in an ethical sense, as an individual. Even when he addresses the politics of disability -- the self-advocacy movement -- he is concerned with his relationship to it.

His primary ethical concern is interpersonal, and his rule is awareness: awareness of the moral risk in any important action and awareness of one another. "People don't hurt people. People hurt things," he quotes Dick Sobsey as saying (First Contact, p. 20). And he acknowledges that such awareness, such self-knowledge, is much more difficult than it looks.

A Hingsburger book acknowledges the struggle: The things he once believed and no longer does, the things he once did and now thinks are indefensible, the hard-won insight, the painful self-knowledge. And in acknowledging his own struggle, he can portray that which is worthy of love in people whom it's easy to dismiss or to demonize. He writes about caring for others in a caring way. And that in itself is a wonderful thing.

While he documents the struggle at particular moments, in particular places, within a particular system, his problems are hardly unique. "I don't believe that most people realize," he tells us, that "they have power," that "they routinely abuse that power," that "their behaviour is invisible only to themselves," and that "their responsibility isn't diminished because they Śdidn't mean toŠ' " (Power Tools, p. 4). That's not merely a description of most "direct care" staff; it's a description of most people.

"The only difference between us and them is the keys," someone told me once, gesturing at the staff beyond their Plexiglas barrier. We were, she and I, locked in the dayroom of an acute care unit of a state hospital, and I was getting a much more useful orientation than had been provided at admission. The only difference is the keys -- that is, no difference at all and all the difference in the world.

Hingsburger is concerned with the keys; with the differences between human beings which are alleged to justify those keys; with the problems facing those who, like direct care workers, live at the junction of real powerlessness and terrible power -- but of course, many of us allow a sense of powerlessness to obscure the ways in which we use power. He is interested in human difference and in human sameness, and in all that that encompasses.

Moreover, he addresses the particular problems facing those who are concerned with disability issues. "Without question," he tells us, "I understood that those with fully operating minds didn't lack insight. I even came to understand that those who had developmental disabilities, but were verbal, also had insight and humour and personality and ..." He trails off into silence before continuing, "But there were those others."(First Contact, pp. 5-6).

This is not an uncommon problem within the disability community. There are those who oppose nursing homes but support outpatient commitment for psychiatric patients. There are those who will fight tooth and nail for ramps and grab-bars and enough space to maneuver a wheelchair but who cannot imagine how one would include someone labeled "mentally retarded" in the independent living movement.

There are points at which I disagree with Hingsburger, though I've learned that those points change with time. His work has held up to multiple readings at different points on my own journey, and it continues to challenge me when I pick it up. I expect that First Contact, A Little Behind, and Power Tools will also stand the test of time. I do not believe, for example, that I will ever be able to read "Tender Box" (A Little Behind, pp. 33-36, first published in Mouth) without crying -- and I hope that I am right.

Hingsburger the behavioral consultant may be of interest to a limited audience; Hingsburger the ethicist, however, addresses issues which are important as, mindful of the issues raised by disability, we consider what equality means, what justice means, and how we ought to live.

You gotta read these books.

Cal Montgomery is a speaker, writer and activist who has been known to distract a team of sheltered workshop "employees" by starting a discussion of Sisyphus, who was condemned to push the same rock up the same hill for all eternity.

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