A Real Professional Might Just Do That

Content Notice: mentions of ABA, abuse by therapists and health professionals, minimizing of abuse and hurt, “not all [insert group here]” excuses

Nota bene: I wrote this as a sort of open letter to professionals (especially professionals who work with disabled people on a daily basis) who participate in “not all [profession]”/ “a real [profession] wouldn’t do that” rhetoric. If you ever run into a professional like that, feel free to link them to this post. I meant it as a community resource.

Nota bene II: If you are a professional who was told to read this, please do so. I am not trying to attack you or your profession but I am also not here to coddle you. “Not all [profession]”/ “a real [profession] wouldn’t do that” rhetoric is harmful to disabled people and our loved ones. It minimizes our pain and the abuse we too often live through at the hands of professionals who should know better. Take responsibility for your actions, hold your colleagues accountable, and listen to your clients when they tell you you’ve messed up.

“A real [insert profession here] wouldn’t do that.”

I have heard this from various professionals in various fields, most related to support, education, and health care for disabled people (particularly disabled children). SLPs, teachers, doctors, nurses, therapists of various stripes, direct support professionals. The profession changes, the line stays the same.

The line is always in response to a person (sometimes a disabled adult, sometimes a parent of a disabled child) complaining about how a member of that profession wronged them. Most recently, it was a parent talking about how an SLP completely disrespected her and her child’s boundaries, tried to push ABA techniques on them, and refused to agree that her child would benefit from high-tech AAC without trying low-tech first.

And what happened in the comments of that post? Multiple SLPs saying that the particular SLP in question wasn’t a “real” SLP, that a “real” SLP wouldn’t do that, that the parent needed to not give up on SLPs, that there are good SLPs out there (which, assumedly, the commenters counted themselves among).

I saw this and all I could think was the “not all men/not all white people/not all Christians/not all cis people/not all abled people” BS that happens on the internet every day. The exact group changes, the language stays the same. Or maybe the language changes (“a real SLP wouldn’t do that” vs “not all men”) but the intention stays the same.

Own up to the failings and abuses perpetrated by your in-group. If someone tells you they have been hurt by one of your own, act with kindness. Tell them “I’m sorry that happened to you.” Validate their feelings and for the love of all that is good, don’t minimize their pain.

If you can’t do that – if you don’t believe them, if you can’t show kindness, if you know you’re going to say something minimizing – don’t respond. I’m thinking of the particular online group the most recent incident happened in but this is in general. Don’t respond.

Maybe you have the skills to be able to offer useful advice. In another incident, I saw a therapist offer to help someone find resources to make an ethics complaint to their state’s board overseeing psychologists. That is useful. Saying “this is also a professional ethics violation, I can try to help if you’d like to file a complaint” gives the person an option. It validates how they’re feeling. It says “I, as a person with this particular professional qualification and the social power that comes with it, recognize that what happened to you was wrong in multiple ways.” That is powerful validation to someone harmed by a professional. Crucially, it also says “people in my profession are capable of harming others” without implying that you are above committing such harms. It recognizes that professionals are fallible.

(Though please do not frame this as “would you like to make an ethics complaint? I can help with that.” Do not put the person on the spot. Do not put them in a situation where they have to make major decisions in a public forum. Tell them that if they would like to make an ethics complaint/do something else you can help with, they can reach out to you. End of story.)

If someone is hurting because a member of your profession hurt/abused them, it is not your job to reassure them that not every member is like that. Almost certainly, they logically know that. They may seek out advice from another member of your profession, one who will not hurt them. They may decide to abandon seeking advice from your profession altogether because of the pain they are in. It is not your job to convince them one way or the other. Put aside your professional credentials (unless you are specifically offering help that requires them) and respond as a human does to another, hurting human. Treat them as a human in need, not a potential patient/client/student/whoever.

Maybe not all teachers/SLPs/doctors/therapists/whoever, but enough of them one betrayed this person’s trust. Maybe not all, but enough that one hurt this person. Maybe not all, but enough that I’ve heard this story enough times to write a post about it.

Maybe not all, but enough that disabled people have to be careful of the people we are supposed to trust the most. If no “real” member of your profession would do such a thing, maybe it’s time to take a look at all the phonies. Because they keep happening, they keep hurting people, and they keep ensuring people who could benefit from your profession’s help aren’t going to get it.

And for a lot of us, maybe most of us, it’s not just once. It’s over and over and over and over again until we can’t separate the times out, until it we have more bad interactions than good, until we bristle at the thought of any interaction with a member of whatever the profession is. Or professions – most people who experience abuse from one profession experience it from multiple. It’s death by a thousand paper cuts. Medical trauma and medical abuse – especially repeated medical abuse and trauma – are constant spectres for disabled people.

It’s so frustrating to get these types of responses, too, because there is no good way to follow up. My gut response in these cases is a blunt “I know, and I wasn’t saying all [profession] were bad. Mind your own business and make sure your house is in order,” but that’s often not “polite.” (Well, neither is responding to someone’s pain with “but not all [group]” but guess which one is policed more.) Then my next response is “I know you’re trying to be nice, but that’s not helpful here,” which inevitably leads to a discussion about why it’s not helpful – a discussion I don’t want to have. And the third response I come up with is a simple “thanks, I’ll keep that in mind,” which absolutely minimizes the pain I am feeling but at least cuts down on extra conflict. The final response is to say nothing. The third and fourth responses are such failures, to me, because they mean I can’t explain why these responses aren’t helpful and the person will most likely do it again. But they happen because it’s easier than arguing, especially if I’m unsure that the person will actually listen to me.  

This is an example of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy (no true Scotsman puts sugar in their porridge, no true [profession] would say that to a client) but it’s more than that. Responding to someone’s story of how a member of your profession hurt them, no matter how much you are trying to convince them not to give up, by saying the person who hurt them isn’t a “true” [profession] isn’t helpful. Don’t make this about yourself. Don’t make this about saving the reputation of your profession. It’s about a person who’s hurting because someone hurt them and what they can do to heal and find options. It’s not about you or the reputation of your profession.

So please, please listen when people talk about being hurt. Please take a step back and see things from outside of whatever your in-group is. Please respond with kindness, not defensiveness. And if you need to not reply immediately, if you need to take a minute to vent all your defensiveness into something else, do it. Just please, don’t direct passive defensiveness towards someone who is already hurting.