Disability is a tough social problem because it is dynamically, generatively and socially complex. The cause and effect of attitudes towards disability have been far apart in time and space, so they are hard to grasp (dynamic); the effects have unfolded in unfamiliar and unpredictable ways (generative); and the people involved have seen things differently, so invariably have become polarised (social).Tough problems usually either get stuck and therefore remain unsolved, or they get solved by force. Problems to do with disability have taken both courses. Another way to solve tough problems is to engage all parties in deep conversation, providing the opportunity for people to talk and listen to each other. This course of action takes time but has been proven to generate understanding, empathy, insight and creative solutions.
Right now society needs deep conversations about disability.
Identifying vital behaviours
While negative attitudes towards disabled people have been consistently identified as the biggest barrier to disabled people being able to access the same opportunities as most other New Zealanders, latest theories about the “science of influence” point to the critical role of vital behaviours in creating the environment in which attitudes can evolve and embed.
Changing negative attitudes will help to achieve more positive outcomes for disabled people, but it will be the ability of disabled and non-disabled people to identify vital changes in behaviour that will ensure these improved outcomes.
Disability is a complex issue that requires more than one vital behaviour to effect change in a given area. However, if a finite range of vital behaviours are introduced throughout society and reinforced by consistent and continuous repetition, over time a tipping point will occur.
Dealing with fear
Another key alignment with the science of influence is the phenomenon of phobias. Phobias are caused by inaccurate beliefs and a resistance to change in attitudes and behaviours, based on these beliefs (eg. ophiophobia is caused by the inaccurate belief that all snakes are killers, when in fact most are not.
Phobias are cured by changing people’s mental cause and effect maps, by attending to two questions - can I change? and will it be worth it? Vicarious modelling and experience (watching others safely complete the feared behaviour) are proven to be highly efficient and effective in treating phobias by causing empathy and triggering mirror neurons in the brain.
People have been cured of ophiophobia in hours by receiving correct information; observing others handle snakes without harm; practicing snake contact in controlled environments and in incremental steps; and experiencing the benefit of living without irrational fear.
If society’s fear of disability were seen as a phobia (dysfunction-phobia), we could extrapolate that society needs correct information about disability; to watch accurate portrayals of interaction with disabled people; to have opportunities to engage positively with disabled people, and to experience beneficial outcomes.
Thinking in new ways
New bridges between science and philosophy can be interpreted as promoting the unconventional wisdom that we create our own reality with our thinking and beliefs. Using this lens we create disability as a negative, comparative, inaccurate and uncreative reality that perhaps should never have considered. Some might say we should stop thinking about it because the more we think about it, the more of it we create and experience.
What we could consider instead is that human beings function and experience the world in a diversity of ways. We could call that functional and experiential diversity. Diversity can be seen as the complex synergy of uniqueness and commonality (or difference and similarity), which is not the usual list of characteristics with which we associate normally associate diversity or disability. 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 everyone may begin to value and recognise with more clarity their own uniqueness, rather than desperately trying to "fit in".
Influencer: The Power to Change Anything. Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Al Switzler, Ron McMillan, David Maxfield. August 2007. McGraw-Hill
The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Malcolm Gladwell. January 2002. Little, Brown & Company
Outliers: The Story of Success. Malcolm Gladwell. November 2008. Little, Brown & Company
Solving Tough Problems : An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities. Adam Kahane. August 2007. Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Using our practical wisdom. Barry Schwartz. TED Talk.
Brene Brown: The power of vulnerability. TED Talk