Duty to Warn
By Jenny Holland
This is a story about integration, action, and psychotherapy.
Mostly, it is about love.
As a mental health professional, I am used to taking a role in the advancement and welfare of others on a daily basis through my capacity to educate, evaluate, empathize,and advocate.
For the most part, a therapist's work is done on a smaller scale—one-on-one in the safety of a confidential, therapeutic setting.
It is because we have aligned with our clients that they trust us and make good use of our attention. They trust us to say what we see in a way that allows them to take it in and make use of it for themselves. They trust us to act in their best interest.
Our help comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s providing support during transitional or challenging times. Other times, it is in the work of exploration and helping our clients know when to sit back and when to take action.
We all have a different threshold that tells us when we must act. I crossed that threshold for the first time shortly after my eighteenth birthday. It was August 1989 and after soliciting a citizen to perform unlawful acts against public property, I got myself arrested. It was the first meaningful thing I did as a legal adult.
A friend of mine had asked if I wanted to take a road trip to protest the lack of accessibility for people with disabilities in Sparks, Nevada. So we packed both of our wheelchairs and our seventy-five-pound service dogs into my thirteen-year-old Honda and hit the road.
When we arrived, we came upon a small group of about thirty activists. Seemingly standing in the middle of nowhere, they gathered on a street corner in protest. They held signs with large letters that read, “Disability Pride!”Others read, “We Exist!” Holding their signs—each withan exclamation mark—the group chanted together, "In-dee-pen-dence is our right!"
I wanted to be inspired by the scene, but I wasn’t. I had yet to integrate being disabled into my identity and I felt deflated.
I spent my limited resources on gas and trashed myused car. I was exhausted from the miles and the energy spent removing and repacking the wheelchairs every time we needed to stop. And for what? To stand with a small band of misfits in 113° heat in the middle of nowhere? My thoughts raced. Had I driven all this way in pain and discomfort for this?
My friend remained encouraging and enthusiastic, so we pulled out our wheelchairs and joined the others on thestreet.
Tolerating the heat was one thing; tolerating being part of this group was another. We were ragged around the edges, unsightly, disorganized. This could not be MY group. We had no power. We didn’t even have a critical mass. Our efforts felt like a lost cause.
I was lost in these thoughts when a woman in a power wheelchair rolled up alongside me. Her legs were sticking straight out in front of her, due to spasticity, and she held a sledgehammer in her lap.
“What are you gonna do with that?” I yelled over to her.
“I’m gonna use it to make a curb cut here. Do you think I should do it?” She asked.
A curb cut may have seemed insignificant, but it’s one thing that grants people with disabilities entry into the public sphere—one that gives us a chance to cross the street or even be in the street at all. I don’t know if it was my admiration for the fortitude of this woman—the chutzpah, the energy of the crowd, or simply my desire to have something big happen, but I heard myself yelling, “Do it! Do it!”
I knew it was unlikely the woman would be able to physically lift the sledgehammer, but she didn’t need to. Her actions created a tool inside me that was more powerful than any object of demolition.
“Do it! Do it!” I yelled even louder.
I looked over just in time to see a policeman approaching the woman with the sledgehammer—his batonalready in hand. I knew in an instant that the police had interpreted her spasticity, her disability, and her very body as an act of resisting arrest.
After our arrest, I sat in a jail cell and wondered what would happen. Regardless, I had been changed.
See, it was never just about a curb cut. It was a fight for existence—to have our issues count. We wanted to be treated like human beings—to show people that every life deserves equal and fair treatment, because no life is unworthy of life itself.
Inside the jail, we couldn’t use the bathrooms. They didn’t want to deal with the mess and weren’t particularly interested in troubleshooting the issue. Eventually, they had to let us go. When I was released, the charges were dropped. They were dropped against all of us. The irony of the reasoning—the fact that the jail was not handicap accessible—was not lost on us.
A few days after the protest in Sparks, Nevada, I found myself sitting in my first college seminar—a political science class at Sonoma State University. It was only the first day, but we talked about the United States and its role in World War II. We were wide-eyed and young, sitting around a seminar table, horrified to learn that our government knew about the systematic slaughtering ofJews and other minorities in Eastern Europe. They failed to act. For so long, our country did nothing. I was stunned and stupefied by this new awareness of our capacity to tolerate, perpetuate, and engage in such horrific actions. I was shocked by the knowledge that we were silent—complicit—in the face of evil.
Sensing my distress, outrage, and feelings of hopelessness, my professor looked at me wearily and said, “There must be a special place in hell for those who knew and did not say.”
In 1990, less than one year later, one of the most comprehensive civil rights bills was signed into law: The Americans with Disabilities Act. I’d like to think our small protest had something to do with it. The reality is, people with disabilities had organized and mobilized. Their protests and refusal to be silent in the face of oppression and injustice finally resulted in legislation.
Americans with Disabilities. We now had a name and laws to help protect us. Over time, the legal changes even made way for attitudinal change. Our actions made a difference.
Like the protest in Nevada and political science course I enrolled in afterward, I learned to never remain silent when I can take action. My position as a mental health professional continues to reaffirm this belief.
Psychotherapy itself is an act—a radical political act that is capable of influencing great change. When we empower others to trust their feelings and perceptions, to act in their own best interests, and to understand themselves and their motivations on deeper levels, we are fostering strength and resilience. We are contributing to a system where thoughtful and empowered people flourish.
Clinicians are in a position to be powerful and effective agents of change, but that requires wrestling with the part of the psyche that pulls on us to do nothing. Operating from this place, we cannot move and become stuck in the psychological concrete that stands between us and action.
While I am not interested in being arrested again for soliciting citizens to destroy public property, I am interested in motivating others to cross the threshold to action. I am interested in taking my specialized knowledge, coupled with action, to be a sledgehammer against ignorance, intolerance, and injustice! Let’s pick up our sledgehammers and use them with gusto! Let’s proclaim the truth that we see. Let's defend the defenseless.
So where is my threshold for action in light of the harsh realities we are facing now? Maybe it was Trump's making fun of a disabled reporter to get a laugh. Or maybe it was listening to client after client express their feelings of deep despair over Trump’s position of power. Or maybe I was pushed to act by the marked increase in depression, anxiety, traumatic response, suicidal ideation, and hopelessness in my clients in the year since Trump was elected. As one client put it, “It's like being raped all over again with every action he takes every hateful word he says."
Whatever your threshold for action is, now is the time to cross it and keep going.