Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Survey Says

I was asked an odd question by a student with a microphone at the local mall. He was a charming kid (I can't believe that I'm old enough to consider a 20 year old a child)and was doing some kind of project for a psychology class at university. I remembered, immediately, doing a study whereby people waiting for an experiment had a male or a female walk by and spill computer cards all over the floor. We measured who they helped and what the response time was. We all knew that women would get helped more often and more quickly but a research paper is a research paper. All that just to say that when he approached and asked to do an interview for research purposes, I said OK.

Not knowing what to expect, I followed him to a little space created by two pillars and he set his tape recorder up. He said the date and time into the tape and then asked me what I wished for in the world for Christmas as a man with a disability. The question took me aback. I didn't answer him, I asked him a question ... What is this really about? He told me that he was talking to a variety of people from different minority groups and he wanted to see if there was a 'universal' wish from people who were not part of the dominant social group (I've struggled to remember the phrase he used and can't quite get it but those three words are as close as I could come). I asked him to assure me that this wasn't some weird kind of Scientology thing and he assured me that it was not.

I asked him if I could have time. He said that I could but didn't turn off the tape. I asked him why and he said that he would just time the 'think time' later rather than try to jot it down now. As someone who loses pieces of paper I understood. I thought for a bit and then this is a summary of what I said ...

"My first response is to make some kind of joke but if I had to seriously answer the question about what I would wish for the world as a person with a disability. I'd like it if every single person was born with a ramped mind. I'd be thrilled if people were created with minds that were accessible and opinions that were malleable. Most people seem to simply spend a lifetime confirming preexisting bias' and firmly gripped belief systems - minds that were constantly able to allow in new ideas and new information would be wonderful. I think that this would benefit people with disabilities in huge ways. An accessible mind would lead to an accessible world. People would be able to see the benefits of universal design. People would understand the appropriateness of diversity in the classroom. People would suddenly 'get' the concept of 'all'. I find arriving at a business only to have stairs block my way incredibly frustrating but I find it even more upsetting to talk to someone who's mind isn't open even to idea of equity and equality. People who look at me and see 'fat' or 'crippled' or 'gay' and then only hear my words through that filter - they'd be changed. And me, too, I'd be changed. I have difficulty hearing some things too, my mind isn't open to all - and I won't even consider the arguments on the 'other' side. I'd be a bigger person and a wiser person if my mind was ramped. So my wish this Christmas is that we all wake up on Christmas morning with our mind's ramped, our hearts made accessible and our souls open - that would be a Christmas day to remember."

When I finished, he looked at me and asked if that was all, I told him that it was. He shut off the machine. I asked him what others have said. He said that he was nearly done and that everyone he'd asked had talked about attitude and prejudices, about openness and opportunity ... that I was the first person with a disability he'd asked. He said that he didn't even think to ask people with disabilities but as he saw me pushing myself in the mall he realized that he had limited his definition of diversity and that was an odd error to make. He said he would try and get another two or three people with disabilities and then he'd be nearly done.

As I began to push away he called out, "I promise to keep my mind ramped for as long as I live!"

Well it's going to be a Merry Christmas.


Heike said...

A ramped mind. What a wonderful concept!

Linda said...

That would make a nice T-Shirt....Open Heart Open Mind!
I like this piece Dave...
Love LinMac

Anonymous said...

I want to meet this young man. Wonder what he is studying and if he needs a job! MDN

abby said...

nice, very nice.
here is to ramping some minds in the new year!

liz said...

I love that concept. You have done a lot to help me put ramps in and lower the counters in my head.

Dark Angel said...

I loved this post. My parents' minds could certainly do with ramping. There are certain issues I have that they still just don't understand. They don't even take my PDD-NOS diagnosis seriously. My mum actually dismissed it as 'a label'.
And my dad just doesn't seem to get that not being able to study doesn't automatically mean that you can't be bothered. On several occasions he has said to my face that I'm 24 now, so it's about time I got down to some course or study.
It really would make me so much happier if I knew that I could just be truthful to my parents about things and not have tow orry about being judged. 'cause their current attitude towards my problems really hurts.

Andrew said...

A world without labels would be great. If everyone approached life with an acceptance that all of our differences are automatically respected and accepted, I believe minorities wouldn't struggle half as much.

Kathy said...

You know what Dave? The greatest experiences seem to search you out.. Seems like I learn more from YOUR life lessons than I do my own.. Why is that? Thanks for being a teacher.

Andrea Shettle, MSW said...


I may be writing this a few days late because I don't know if you'll come back here and see this, but:

I think that completely *ignoring* "labels" (i.e., differences among people) causes as many problems as it does when we attach too much meaning to them.

On one hand, when we attach too *much* meaning to a given label, or associate it with all the wrong stereotypes, that's harmful for all the reasons that I think pretty much everyone knows, including you. In fact, these reasons are so well known that they lead to "let's have a label-less world" remarks like this one in the first place.

But on the other hand, pretending that differences don't exist at all by refusing to label them does not solve the problem. It just creates a whole new set of problems.

As just an example: I am Deaf. No, that's not all of who I am, but it IS still a pretty important part of it. If you don't understand the fact that, yes, I AM Deaf; that I have pride in belonging to that cultural and linguistic community; that being Deaf (both in the sense of belonging to a community and in the sense of hearing less than most people) does shape my experiences of daily life in all kinds of ways, NOT all of which have to do with the perceptions of behaviors of others; that it does have some pretty important implications for what things I need (eg, sign language interpreters or closed captions etc); and all the rest ... if you don't understand any of the baggage that DOES legitimately come with the label "Deaf" ... then you just don't understand ME at all. Nor are you likely to fully grasp why I need certain accommodations and, thus, take them seriously enough to do what it takes make sure you're not accidentally blocking my access to them.

I wouldn't want to spend a lot of time around someone who is so obsessed with the label "Deaf" that they failed to see me as a person. But I also wouldn't want to spend a lot of time around someone who refuses to use the label "Deaf" in association with me either, because then that person would be just missing way too much information that they NEED to both know and completely accept about me in order to help me feel safe and comfortable around them.

I encourage you to read the article "Why You Shouldn't be Colorblind", and then follow some of the links to the other article linked from the bottom of that page on the same topic.

I first learned of the above article while reading an insightful blog post by Amanda Baggs called "People can be a bit like water. This essay is not really about labeling per se, but is still well worth reading (and re-reading, and thinking over) in its own right. One of the concepts that it does promote is the idea that pretending certain problems don't exist doesn't make them go away (The attempt to abolish labels engages in this kind of magical thinking.)

Hope these articles prove of interest.

Andrew said...

Dear Andrea Shettle.
Thank you for you points you raised. I understand how short comments on such an intricate area which has been embedded in societies consciousness can cause some confusion, I apologise for that. I however stand by my point that a world without "labeling" people is one we should be striving for. I work with labels every single day as a psychologist. I understand totally how we need to categorise eachother in order to assist with difference. Without such, it would naturally cause me difficulties in how I work with the systems to enable people with autism versus someone who has been traumatised by abuse, to overcome the difficulties they may face. Indeed, part of the most powerful aspects of therapeutic work is to bring many individuals into full awareness of their difference in order to overcome internal and then external barriers to difference. It however doesn't stop me from wishing that we didn't have to stigmatise others depending on their difference, this is how I have come to conceptualise the word 'labeling'. I have to work in a system of language and reference points I don't completely sign up to in order to do my job. Labelling of others has caused so many prejudices, that I think there must be more empowering and respectful ways to refer to eachother's various wants and needs. I don't have the answer to this, but I hope as human nature develops we will find other ways of helping without harming.
I trust that has clarified somewhat my original points, and thank you again for your points which I naturally agree with.