Echostaffia and Power


“We were talking about the way people were saying things in such a vague way, and he was telling me how someone had just told him about my asking ‘What exactly do you mean by that?’ when someone asked me something in vague and confusing terms. And… he laughed.” I was trying to explain it to my friend.

“That’s just about as funny as someone with an intellectual disability getting confused over four-syllable words is funny!” was her response.

“The worst part, though… was that I laughed too. I didn’t want to laugh. I didn’t mean to laugh. It was just…”


“No, it wasn’t just laughing because he was laughing. I was laughing because I was afraid not to. When I laugh around you, I feel like I’m really laughing. When I laugh around them, it’s self-defense.”

“Oh… echostaffia.”

Echostaffia is a good word for Cute Client Mode. The cure for echostaffia, my friend said, is genuine power.

Earlier today, I was reading a paper by Wolf Wolfensberger on something he calls Social Role Valorization, and how it’s in opposition to things like empowerment and self-determination. He says that it should be. That the power involved in the ideas of self-determination and empowerment is just a shallow sort of power anyway, and is power over other people, and all sorts of other excuses as to why his theory was more suitable than these other ones.

He said that there are large groups of people all over the world who are utterly powerless and utterly happy. My friend’s comment, when I was ranting about the sort of disempowerment I’d love to subject Wolfensberger to, was “Oh… there are lots of people who’ve learned echostaffia, that I’ll believe!”

I am not the sort of person who calculatedly constructs different images to show to different people. I couldn’t keep up with it. I have been told that I am remarkably consistent in my personality across all situations, whereas most people change a good deal depending on who they’re around. But there are still lines I won’t cross. And the vast majority of staff will never see some important aspects of me.

When I am around staff, I do certain things in order to survive. When I am around friends, I don’t have to do those things. Hell, when I’m around strangers, I don’t have to do as many of those things.

I learned to hide my feelings, especially negative ones. The very first day in the state hospital, I received a valuable piece of advice. Feeling frightened, abandoned, and alone, I started to cry in the day room. Another patient came and sat beside me, leaned over and whispered, “Don’t do that. They’ll think you’re depressed.” So I learned to cry only at night, in my bed, under the covers without making a sound.

My only aim during my two-month stay in the state hospital (probably the longest two months of my life) was to get out. If that meant being a good patient, if that meant playing the game, telling them what they wanted to hear, then so be it. At the same time, I was consumed with the clear conviction that there was something fundamentally wrong here. Who were these people that had taken such total control of our lives? Why were they the experts on what we should do, how we should live? Why was the ugliness, and even the brutality, of what was happening to us overlooked and ignored? Why had the world turned its back on us?

So I became a good patient outwardly, while inside I nurtured a secret rebellion that was no less real for being hidden. I used to imagine a future in which an army of former patients marched on the hospital, emptied it of patients and staff, and then burned all the buildings to the ground. In my fantasy, we joined hands and danced around this bonfire of oppression. You see, in my heart I was already a very, very bad patient!

-Judi Chamberlin, Confessions of a Non-Compliant Patient

News flash to the vast majority of staff: That ‘contented client’ of yours may be plotting revolution in her head. When we are going along with what you say, it can be more about our legitimate fear of you than the inherent wisdom and rightness of your ideas. When we laugh with you while you laugh at us, it may be because we’re afraid of what will happen if we don’t. You can build entire relationships that you consider deep and meaningful, and the relationship is actually with the actions we use to defend ourselves against you. Some of you call that connection, I call it disgusting.

You may talk about trust. But in a system that routinely harms us, trust has to be earned. You don’t earn trust by talking about how wonderful you are. You earn trust by demonstrating that you’re trustworthy. Doing, not saying. And demanding that trust, demanding that we “open up” to you or whatever your jargon tells you we must do in order to “establish a relationship” with you… that’s the surest route to never being trusted. Most of us have been hearing this our whole lives, after awhile we stop buying it.

The paper on Social Role Valorization says that being ‘protected’ is more important than having power. It talks about people who were ‘dumped’ from institutions, who ‘fiercely defend’ the power they have, while leading ‘miserable’ lives in worse material circumstances than institutions. Instead of actually learning that there are more important things than the pseudo-protection that institutions claim to offer… the author goes on to dismiss such people as essentially defective, stupid, crazy, short-sighted, and so forth. (Not to mention invoking in people’s minds the old false dichotomy of abuse vs. neglect, confinement vs. abandonment.)

One of the reasons I believe I was able to escape the role of chronic patient that had been predicted for me was that I was able to leave the surveillance and control of the mental health system when I left the state hospital. Today, that’s called “falling through the cracks.” While I agree that it’s important to help people avoid hunger and homelessness, such help must not come at too high a price. Help that comes with unwanted strings – “We’ll give you housing if you take medication,” “We’ll sign your SSI papers if you go to the day program” -is help that is paid for in imprisoned spirits and stifled dreams. We should not be surprised that some people won’t sell their souls so cheaply.

-Judi Chamberlin, Confessions of a Non-Compliant Patient

Power, real power, not whatever false-ego-power-crap Wolfensberger was reducing empowerment to, is important. It means that echostaffia and Cute Client Mode, and the pretty lies that staff construct around them, don’t have to exist. If things were really so wonderful off in staff-land, we wouldn’t have to use that mode to appease staff. And we wouldn’t be taught that this is all our problem, that if we were just more trusting or whatever, they’d be more trustworthy or whatever (or that there’s something wrong with our attitude and outlook, or…).

I hope one day to have enough power that I will not have to deal with the confusion that comes after even a brief lapse into Cute Client Mode. The difference between spending time with a friend, and spending time with staff, is striking. Also the difference between spending time with staff, and spending time afterwards alone to deal with the aftermath of all this. I can’t describe it. I just know how disgusting it is.

All those “unmotivated clients” I keep hearing about are the ones who are on a silent sit-down strike about others’ visions of what their lives should be like. When I ask professionals what it is that their clients are “unmotivated ” about, it usually turns out to be washing floors or dishes, on the one hand, or going to meaningless meetings on the other. Would you be “motivated” to reveal your deepest secrets to a stranger, for example, someone you have no reason to believe you can trust with this sensitive information? And, more important, should you be “motivated” to do so?

-Judi Chamberlin, Confessions of a Non-Compliant Patient

I would rather have power — not tons of it, just what’s necessary — than have some staff running around trying to save me from a non-valorized social role, any day. And I’d rather have power than have to deal with my entire personality being temporarily tweaked by random encounters with staff who don’t even notice when it’s happening because they already have so much power.


About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods. Crochet or otherwise create constantly and compulsively. Write poetry and paint when I can. Developmentally disabled, physically and cognitively disabled. I'm not really part of any online faction or another, even ones that claim me as a member. The thing in the world most important to me is having love and compassion for other people, although I don't always measure up to my own standards there by a longshot. And individual specific actions and situations and contexts matter a lot more to me than broadly-spoken abstract words and ideas about a topic. My father died in 2014 and that has changed my life a lot in ways that are still evolving, but I wear a lot of his clothes and hats every day since he died and have shown no sign of stopping soon.

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