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Being Vulnerable Is Traumatic: What the Push for Storytelling in DEI Misses

A few months ago I checked out Brené Brown's The Gifts of Imperfection from my local library. I haven't finished it yet, probably because the first few pages hit me in a way I wasn't expecting. I know I will need to be in a safer headspace to finish reading this one. Here are some of the quotes that stood out to me and helped me better understand what I've gone through over the years.

Quote 1:

One thing that's become very clear to me is that the experience of sharing our vulnerability is not the same for all of us. ... The greatest casualty of trauma--the thing that trauma often takes away from us--is the emotional, and sometimes even physical, safety that is necesary for us to be vulnerable.

Quote 2:

Dehumanization--the core of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and all systemic forms of oppression and/or bias--is a form of daily trauma. You only have to witness someone who shares your identity suffering to experience real emotional and physical trauma.

Many of these systemic forms of trauma are so pervasive that asking people to embrace vulnerability and imperfections without taking into consideration their lived experience can be asking them to do something that is not emotionally or even physically safe in all environments.

Quote 3:

None of us can fully embrace the gifts of vulnerability, courage, and authenticity if any of us are denied those gifts because of who we are or what we've endured. Being imperfect, authentic, and vulnerable is a function of being human--not a privilege afforded to those who can get away with it without being labeled, dimissed, and judged.

A large part of my personal journey of self acceptance has been learning more about trauma, and that it's something that doesn't just affect military veterans, first responders, survivors of physical abuse, etc. It affects most of us at varying degrees. These quotes helped me realize that I've actually been through a significant amount of trauma in my career.

Based on these quotes... I now know how my work in web accessibility is actually traumatic for me.

In my experience, I've had to do more advocacy on behalf of my communities than teaching how to make the web accessible. Most places I've worked believe that accessibility is important, but they tend to only have a surface-level understanding of what accessibility and disability inclusion are. Even in the most accessibility-forward organizations, I've had to advocate for my communities at almost every single step.

There are still countless stigmas, stereotypes, and biases that disabled people are dramatic, making things up, or looking for attention. Not only am I constantly witnessing people from my communities being harmed by accessibility barriers (and experiencing them myself), I'm also constantly in a position where non-disabled people need convinced that something is in fact an accessibility barrier.

It hurts to see what people think of my community, because that's also what they think of me. It's invalidating and dehumanizing. It's personal. It's a fight that's rigged in the favor of the non-disabled people in positions of power. It's why we need people from marginalized backgrounds in positions of power, and why we should accept their life experiences as strong expertise and be paid for it.

I happen to be someone that's very vocal about my identity, experiences, and accessibility needs. I'm not sure when that started because I used to be pretty shy growing up. Now it's sort of involuntary and takes me more work to not be vocal. But I also continue to be vocal because I know there are countless people who can't. I'm very privileged to have the means to speak up.

And this is where the push for storytelling & vulnerability in DEI falls so, so short. The majority of people pushing for it are already in positions of power, where they're more safe from bias and judgement than those around them that aren't in positions of power. They're skipping steps and not following through when they ask others to be vulnerable. The people in power aren't checking if environments are even safe for vulnerability, and they aren't putting systems in place that actually protect folks when they decide to be vulnerable.

So if you're someone in a position of power & push for the people around you to be more vulnerable, stop and seriously check if that's possible for them. Don't take just anyone's word for it either. Really dig and do your research. Listen to what people are saying, and also what they're not saying. Establish trust. Provide anonymous methods of feedback. Consider the possibility that what you're asking folks to do is an impossible choice: be vulnerable when it's entirely unsafe, or potentially lose a job for not doing what someone above them said to do.

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