Diversity is about acknowledging and respecting differences
The cult of tolerance does not always extend to those who experience a sense of otherness, often since infancy
James Rickard, Diversity and Employer Manager with Rehab Group
I have asked myself and others the same question, all of my adult life. Does the presence of a disability embrace ones’ whole identity, or does it only come to play in specific circumstances?
This question is important because, in my experience, it determines how I react to specific environments. For example, in my job, where I feel competent in the expectations placed on me and relationships are based on what you bring to the team, my disability is not a factor.
In other environments, where expectations are less defined, for example in a social setting, the presence of my disability, and this sense of difference, often comes into much sharper focus. I often feel it necessary to put people at ease when I first meet them, to demonstrate that my slow speech, or jaunty movements do not mean we cannot communicate effectively and build an accord
Of course, this is my perspective, and this always changes once familiarity is gained.
The classic case of a sense of inferiority is when you allow someone to assist you to do something you can easily do yourself
Post-Freudian theorists such as Adler argue that a physical defect can result in feelings of inferiority. However, in some cases this “inferiority” may also result in a need to “compensate” or even “overcompensate” in a bid to reduce tension or embarrassment. The classic case of a sense of inferiority is when you allow someone to assist you to do something you can easily do yourself. As opposed to overcompensation, where, for example, I have found myself emphasising that I have a college education, sometimes even when it is not relevant.
With all individuals who feel a little different, how one reacts to situations in one’s life all depends on the journey we have been through and our developmental experience.
It is often the case that many people with disabilities are restricted in the avenues which are otherwise easily afforded to others, for example, the ability to experiment with identity. Society is getting much better at talking about the intersections of identity and yet seems to remain selectively blind it comes to people with disabilities. The cult of tolerance does not always extend to those who experience a sense of otherness, often since infancy.
Times are changing, but we need much more resources and more awareness if we are ever going to see the accommodation of people with disabilities into all aspects of society. This is an issue which remains depressingly low on our social and political agenda.
One just has to look at the 10 years it took to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in this country. The impact of this is not just an individual issue, but it is as if society is still in denial of the reality of disability. Disability is probably the one feature of diversity we will all experience at some stage of our life – be it through illness (mental or physical) accident or simply ageing. So, in fact, where we should be acknowledging this reality, we seem to still compartmentalise this part of the human condition
In my view, the experience of a disability – and the identities which stem from it – is a fundamental part of human diversity and therefore should be incorporated into the lived experience of being human, not something separate from it.
In the past, the medical model of disability, which dominated its understanding, saw a need to “fix” impairments or differences by medical and other interventions, even when the impairment or difference did not cause pain or illness thus allowing disabled persons to live a more “normal” life. People with disabilities are often both defined and constrained by medical jurisdiction because they are confronted on a daily basis with the discourses of tragedy, medicalisation, and “otherness” which influences their experience and their sense of self and identity.
You only have to look at the recent clumsy albeit well-intentioned manner in which the media reported the death of the late Stephen Hawking, one of the greatest minds of our time, to see first-hand the prevailing negative attitude that so often inhabits discussions of people with disabilities. The articles celebrating this life and achievements were littered with words such as “inspirational” and “tragic” and “overcoming adversity”.
I feel it is time to move beyond the rhetoric of the individual versus society
Conversely, the social model of disability says that disability is caused by the way society is organised, rather than by a person’s impairment or difference. It looks at ways of removing barriers that restrict life choices for people living with disabilities.
Personally, I feel it is time to move beyond the rhetoric of the individual versus society. It is time to embrace the challenges which a disability may present. In my own case my disability was a driving motivation for getting a college education, but soon it became an issue in securing employment. It took many years of effort and frustration until I found an employer willing to take a risk on my abilities, and adapt the work environment to enable me to use my skills to fully contribute to their goals. Until that time I was lost to the endless experience of applying for jobs and subsequent rejections when I could have been building my career I worked so hard for.
In the early stages of my career, diversity was not on many organisation’s HR agendas. While it is true we have hard fought for Equality Status and Employment Acts, we still need to convince many employers of the contribution that employees with disabilities can make to their businesses. In the social sphere, one would hope, in an ever increasing diverse society, people with disabilities will be supported to become more engaged and active in their communities.
Diversity is about acknowledging and respecting difference. It is about moving beyond simple tolerance or adaptation to embracing difference. Diversity is about valuing and utilising our unique characteristics including physical abilities, disabilities, intellectual abilities, etc.
Modern society and its emphasis on individual autonomy and tolerance seems to be selectively blind when it comes to the one minority group that most people are likely to join at some time in their lives – that of people with disabilities
As a society we need to ask ourselves can we develop a more positive identity from acknowledging our diversity; can we integrate our strengths and weakness with our abilities and disabilities, and embrace how diverse the human condition really is?
It is time people with disabilities stopped worrying about whether or not the disabilities “define” them and we all started to embrace the fact that like it or not, we are all part of a community, a shared identity?
– James Rickard is diversity and employer manager with Rehab Group. Rehab is hosting a National Advocacy Conference for Disability at the Gibson Hotel, Dublin on Tuesday, April 17th.