Creative denial

by Philip Patston.

If in your organisation, you think access for disabled people as visitors, clients and employees isn’t an issue you need to consider, then you’re wrong…but you’re also right.

Confused? I’m glad. Confusion, in therapeutic terms, is a great state to be in, because it leaves you open to options. Conversely, certainty fixes you on one course of action and you miss other possibilities. This article is bout a possibility for creative and ideological change that, I think, could be the biggest opportunity since Copernicus discovered the truth about the Earth and the Sun.

So, before exploring that possibility, let’s get out of the way why you are wrong to ignore disability as an issue. The answer is easy: you could get hit by a bus tomorrow (if you’re in Auckland you are forgiven for thinking a chance would be a fine thing). If your organisation isn’t ‘disability-friendly’, then you could be excluding yourself when you return to work in a wheelchair, with a brain trauma, or experiencing extreme anxiety. If there’s white noise in your head right now and you’re thinking, “No, no, no, that would never happen to me,” then consider something else – stroke (Chris Knox recently had one and you can read writer David Herkt’s raw personal account.) It could happen to you but, like 99 percent of the population, you are in a state of denial that enables you to get on with life without being paralysed with fear about your potential doom.

That’s because you are also dysfunctionphobic – sorry to break it to you so bluntly – but again, you’re among good company. The fear (even hatred) of losing function (closely linked to the fear of death) is an invisible pandemic, silently gripping all societies and cultures. While it is no longer socially acceptable to hate homosexuals or fear cultural annihalation by ethnic minorities, I still sit in groups where people nod vociferously in agreement with someone who utters the old chestnut, “There but for the grace of God go I,” in reference to their hideous thought of anything less than so-called ‘normal’ ability.

Before you dissolve into a puddle of guilt for having thought or uttered something similar, give yourself a break. It’s not like we teach against this thinking in schools. You are as much victim of the idealogical curse of disability as I am. I rather sensationally referred to Copernicus in my introduction; before his bold revelation you could hardly have blamed people for thinking the Sun orbited the Earth – it was common knowledge, what people were taught to think. Unfortunately, as attested in Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, common knowledge is often proven wrong on closer inspection, as Copernicus’ attention to detail so rightly exemplifies.

So what if we were wrong about disability?

What if disability is not the dreaded existence we are all constantly told it is, by parents, doctors, the media, even disabled people themselves?

Disability is hard to define – even the medical profession, disabled academics and renowned thinkers disagree with each other and among themselves. Doctors will tell you that disability is a deviation from normal biological function; contemporary academics will argue it is a social process of creating barriers. But then disabled geneticist and leading theorist Tom Shakespeare suggests now that there is a biological component to disability that social model proponents, himself among them, have ignored. And creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson, himself a survivor of polio, told Creative Momentum that the notion of disability exists because we have such a narrow perception of ability.

Well, I think they’re all wrong. Disability is simply a reality. Wherever you sit on the so-called ability spectrum, if you think disabled, you get disabled. If you think of it as a medical or biological deficiency, it is that. If you think of it as a societal barrier, it is that. If you think of it as a result of a narrow view of ability, well then it’s that too…or instead. Even if you think it’s something to be proud of, you’re still taking pride in being something you’re not – not normal, not included, not able enough. At best disability is a thoughtless label – at worst it’s a stupid word. It’s like calling women “dis-masculated” or gay men and lesbians “dis-heterosexualised”, brunettes “dis-blonded” or dancers as “dis-musicalised”. Please.

But what’s the alternative?

Quantum philosophy is something in which I have little, if any, expertise, but which I do find intensely interesting. I wish everyone had at least an iota of interest in quantum philosophy, because it solves a lot of complex problems. It’s something I wish was taught in schools, but if it was, we probably wouldn’t need schools (there’s a conundrum). In the knowledge that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, I’ll collapse it into a nutshell: as an academic discipline it bridges science and philosophy; and it can be interpreted to promote the unconventional wisdom that we create our own reality with our thinking and beliefs. Chances are you already either know that or think it’s a load of crock. You may have seen the films “What the Bleep Do We Know?” or “The Secret” – the former demystifies quantum physics and the latter commercialises it in the form of the Law of Attraction. Personally I don’t think it matters whether you give it credit or not. I just think it’s a useful paradigm to use to look at things differently.

I’ve been looking at disability and marginalisation through a quantum  lens for the last three years and this is the conclusion I’ve reached: we create disability, however we define it, just by thinking about it (and cultural, sexual, religious and any other marginalisation for that matter, but I’ll stick to disability for now, for simplicity’s sake). I think disability is a negative, comparative, inaccurate and uncreative reality that we should never have considered. And now that I have pointed this out, in such a Copernican manner, I think we should stop thinking about it because the more we think about it, the more of it we create and experience. That’s why you’re right to ignore it or deny it altogether.

But that’s not the answer, because the truth is that we do exclude others and potentially ourselves when we don’t consider it. The answer is a question: What could we think about instead? That’s important, because if Copernicus had said the Sun didn’t orbit the Earth but that he didn’t know what happened instead, people wouldn’t have taken him very seriously. That’s why I don’t take people very seriously when they say, “We’re all disabled in some way,” or that people are “physically challenged”. It’s like Copernicus saying, with huge acclaim, “The Sun doesn’t orbit the Earth – they both move around in space,” or “It doesn’t matter which orbits which, they’re both round.” Yeah, thanks dude, come back when you’ve thought about it properly.

What could we be thinking?

Human beings function in and experience the world in a diversity of ways – let’s call that functional and experiential diversity. Diversity can be seen as a complex synergy of uniqueness and commonality (or difference and similarity) – that’s my definition of diversity, which is not the usual list of characteristics with which we associate diversity. Something is unique when it is different in a way worthy of note; it is common when it is ordinary, usual, lacking in distinction and unexceptional. Unique could be judged as interesting; common as rather dull and boring.

Using this change in lens, we are challenged to suspend judgment on what we now define as “disability” and reframe it as “unique” function and experience. Everything else then becomes common in comparison. We lose our fixation with normality, and begin to explore with interest the uniqueness of people that we currently see as abnormal. As a result we may begin to value and recognise with more clarity our own uniqueness, rather than desperately trying to “fit in”.

Were this lens predominant, “disabled” people would redefine themselves. They would wake each morning thinking about their unique function and experience, rather than setting out on another day of being disabled. Because they were not creating a reality of disability, they would stop experiencing it.

It’s starting already. I’ve been exploring my unique experience for the last 18 months and don’t experience disability anything like as much as I used to.

How can organisations both help promote – and benefit from – this change in paradigm?

Recently I sat on a panel and ran a workshop at the Auckland Art Gallery, leaving them with a challenge to accommodate functional diversity by embracing and exploring experiential diversity. They arrived expecting to be made more aware of disability. They left enlightened and looking for creative solutions and ongoing communication.

I’d like us to help each other. I’d like to help you be more disability-friendly by stopping thinking about disability and joining the quest to explore and embrace functional and experiential diversity. And I’d like you to help me spread a message that I think is as important to the world as its relationship with the Sun.

Let’s call it a bit of creative denial among friends.


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