Turning the Gray Areas into Black and White

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Square with a black and white alternating line pattern.“Part of me longs for a job where there’s not a gray area”. Jodie Foster

Can you relate? Gray areas make everything harder, especially when working with people with I/DD.

Here’s Oxfords dictionary’s definition of a gray areas: “an ill-defined situation or field not readily conforming to a category or to an existing set of rules.”

When working with people with I/DD, it is much easier to teach concepts that are black and white. This behavior is not okay, that behavior is okay, right or wrong, black or white. Rules and categories help us manage information and know what to do to fit into society, and helps us know how to behave.

Gray areas create complexity and confusion for both the professional, and for the individual, which means, it can be harder to navigate and teach and frustrating for those being taught.

Here’s an example of the gray area:

Let’s explore the clothing one wears in public versus private. We teach that you can be naked in private and wear clothes in public. Clothes cover your sexual parts. So, if a bathing suit covers sexual parts, can I wear a bathing suit anywhere in public? No. Bathing suits are in the gray area. While it’s okay to wear a bathing suit at a pool or the beach, it’s not okay at the mall or to school. Why? Those are the rules so people feel comfortable and safe. Once you know the rules, we feel more relaxed and free.

Here’s another gray area. Men can go shirtless in public, but women can’t. What about stores? Where can men wear no shirt in public? Beach, swimming pool, park, but not in the grocery store. Why? Those are the rules we have created or the store has created.

Let’s work through a common example and sort out the gray area. Here’s the scenario: We say to a 10-year-old with a developmental disability, “no one should touch your sexual parts.”

When we make this statement, we have to ask ourselves:

  • Is this statement always true?
  • Are there times it’s okay for someone to touch their sexual parts? Where are the possible gray areas with different rules?
    • When the person is older and decides to be sexual with another person, they have both agreed to this sexual act.
    • When they go to the doctor and the doctor is making sure they are healthy. A helping professional can touch sexual parts as long as they ask first and do not ask you to keep it a secret.
    • When a care provider is bathing them and they need that assistance.

When dealing with the gray areas, here are 3 steps to help you sort it out:

Step One: Analyze whether the statement you are making is always true or are there different rules or societal rules/norms.

Step Two: Consider whether there are house rules or personal rules based on where the person lives or their past experiences. For example, one agency may say private is in the bathroom at home and your bedroom and other agencies may say only the bedroom is private. These are the house rules that need to be conveyed.

Step Three: Create a “okay, not okay” grid and list those different rules. Make the gray area, black and white. Use a grid to teach these concepts and create less confusion.

Elevatus Training handout “What is Okay and Not Okay to Do in Public.”













There are numerous and subtle gray areas in our society and it can be difficult to catch all of them. These 3 steps will help you think through the gray areas and turn them into black and white. Turning the gray to black and white makes your teaching more effective and the learner better equipped for a world full of many shades of gray.


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