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Deconstructing “Active Listening”

A few weeks ago, “Whole Body Listening Larry” made the rounds of the autistic community:

Image: A green poster, featuring a cartoon image of a little boy on the left and a series of cartoon images of body parts on the right.  The poster is titled "Whole Body Listening!"  Its subhead reads "Larry wants to remind you to listen with your whole body."  The cartoon body parts are captioned, respectively, as follows: Eyes: "Look at the person talking to you." Ears: "Both ears ready to hear." Mouth: "Quiet - no talking, humming, or making sounds" Hands: "Quiet in lap, pockets or by your side." Feet: "Quiet on the floor." Body: "Faces the speaker." Brain: "Thinking about what is being said." Heart: "Caring about what the other person is saying."

Image: A green poster, featuring a cartoon image of a little boy on the left and a series of cartoon images of body parts on the right. The poster is titled “Whole Body Listening!” Its subhead reads “Larry wants to remind you to listen with your whole body.” The cartoon body parts are captioned, respectively, as follows:
Eyes: “Look at the person talking to you.”
Ears: “Both ears ready to hear.”
Mouth: “Quiet – no talking, humming, or making sounds”
Hands: “Quiet in lap, pockets or by your side.”
Feet: “Quiet on the floor.”
Body: “Faces the speaker.”
Brain: “Thinking about what is being said.”
Heart: “Caring about what the other person is saying.”

The discussion at the time centered on how Larry’s approach to listening is a neurotypical-centric one, and that, for many neurodivergent people (including autistic people), behaving in the way Larry describes actually prevents them from listening.  Larry, the argument went, forces autistic and other ND kids to make a tough choice: pretend to be listening but actually get nothing from the conversation, or listen but get reprimanded for not behaving in the prescribed way when they do?

As someone who has to make the choice whether to “listen” Larry’s way or to, you know, actually attend to and comprehend what the speaker is saying, I’m sympathetic to the pushback against this model.  But I’m also struck by how little of what we portray as “active listening” – what Larry demands – isn’t “listening” at all.  It’s speaking.

It’s not verbal speaking – Larry does ask us explicitly not to make mouthnoises.  But it’s communication all the same.  The body postures that Larry’s “whole body listening” demands are all concentrated on communicating to the “speaker” (here, the person making the mouthnoises) that their mouthnoises are the most important thing in the room.  Larry’s intended message isn’t about making himself, or you, a better listener – whatever that means.  It’s about reassuring the “speaker” that they have an audience by telling them that they have an audience.  The form of “listening” we prize most highly, Larry’s “whole body,” “active” form of listening, is at its core a form of speaking in service of reifying speaking.  “Listening,” in the sense of “attending to and comprehending the context, content, and format of someone else’s communications,” really has very little to do with it.

Larry’s instructions for listening might not be wholly useless.  In a world that prized and taught attending-and-comprehending communication on a par with issuing communication, there could easily be any number of people who did their best “listening” while adopting the body postures Larry advocates.  But that world would not seek to impose any particular set of gestures on its population, and speakers in that world would not require the reassurance of this particular set of gestures in response to their speech.  Instead, that world would allow for the fact that there are many ways of effectively “listening,” and not all of them desire or require this particular set of nonverbal signs in order to operate.

That’s not the world we currently live in, and that’s why the autistic community finds Larry problematic.  Larry becomes yet another way autistic children (and adults) are told to speak in a way that is unnatural to them or else.  But Larry also reveals how we subordinate listening to speaking not only by preferring speaking over listening, but by demanding that listening itself behave as a form of speaking.

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The Social Model of Disability: A Rather Short and Very Simplified Introduction

I wrote this just now for a person on Facebook who asked for a shorter and simpler introduction to the social model of disability than Google offered.  Since I imagine it will be useful to more than just the person to whom I originally responded, I’m reposting it here.

Think of “disabled” or “disability” as a verb. A body/brain condition you have is a “disability” not because it exists or because it differs from body/brain conditions a lot of other people have, but because the world you live in is not set up, socially or otherwise, to let people with your body/brain condition access it easily.

The condition “itself” – say, like having chronic migraines or not having legs – is typically called an “impairment,” especially if the medical world has criteria for diagnosing it.  Impairments can come with their own non-social hardships.  Migraines, for example, can be very painful, cause difficulty thinking, nausea etc. But any body/mind condition, “impairment” or otherwise, is a “disability” only when the way society is structured is the reason you can’t do the things you want to do when you have it.

A rather simplified example: I have chronic migraines. I see the pain as an “impairment,” because no amount of social change will ever make the pain not suck for me. But whether or not I can hold a full-time job with my chronic migraines is a “disability,” because it depends on things like how work is structured in a particular society, what tools I have to do work in alternate ways during a migraine, etc.

My chronic migraines were a full-blown “disability” when I worked as a line editor, because there my employer refused to structure the job so I could do it during a migraine. In other words, I was “disabled” from doing that job by my employer’s rules about how the job “should” be done. But the migraines were less disabling when I was a lawyer or now, as a professor, because both those jobs are ones I can structure (and have structured) so I can do the work even during a migraine.  I can schedule work so that I’m working at home on migraine days; I can lower the lights in my office/classroom and give my students activities that don’t require the same kind of “on my toes” input from me; I can postpone grading for days when I don’t have a migraine; and I have someone else to double-check my writing to make sure it makes sense. In writing fiction, I find that my migraines are actually the opposite of “disabling”: I write *better* fiction when I have one than when I don’t. The migraines are still painful and nauseating, but now I’m “abled” to do my job because it is structured in a way that lets me access it even with the pain and nausea.

…This doesn’t, of course, address any of my reservations about the disability/impairment binary, regarding autism or otherwise.   But I hope it’s useful.

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