A Risky Proposition

Into my news feed this morning came this video, describing the development of a playground in the midst of New York City full of potentially perilous materials such as hammers, nails, saws, and……well….. junk.  To add insult to injury, parents are forbidden to enter. Hard to imagine in this western world of liability, and equally hard in the global South’s world of fiercely protective parents. And yet, research and study tells us there are important and in fact essential benefits to risk that make it worth a closer look.

The article reminded me of a number of things. I live near a mostly Amish community, a faith group that has chosen to reject much of technology as a means to preserve the strength of their community and their religious focus. Although my family is not Amish, we live closely alongside many such families.

Manamish childy if not most Amish families are farmers, and very good farmers at that .It always amazes me to see children as young as 4 years old on the roads, unsupervised, with the reins in their hands as they drive their ‘pony carts’ while cars whiz by at high speeds. One could criticize, or at least wince thinking of the danger, but one cannot deny the competencies that are developed from taking such risks.

For people made vulnerable by the impact of disability, protection and ‘safeguarding against risk’ matter a great deal. In fact, in Social Role Valorization principles, we often  teach about the need to ‘bend over backwards’ to compensate for vulnerability. No wonder, with our study and understanding of the wounds of brutalization and death-making. Today, though, I am reflecting on the benefits of risk-taking, and how reasonable risk helps us all gain so many competencies. I believe the concept of the dignity of risk was first described by  Robert Perske in 1972,

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Robert Perske (1927-2016)

about the same time when Wolfensberger’s conceptualization of ‘Normalization’ was sweeping the western world. It is a peculiar thing that the western institutions, and the ones I see in India as well, are such a mix of perilous and overprotective, at the very same time. Perske reminded us that overprotective can also be perilous, as people are likely to be sheltered from life’s most important lessons, remain dependent (and devalued) and not get the chances for those ‘healthy stretches’ that cause as to grow in leaps and bounds, gain confidence, and help convince others that we can do, can be, and can become. Unfortunately, the dignity of risk also can be used as a weapon, as when people get hurt or harmed and others say, “their choice, their fault”.

I think the balance between over-protection and under-protection sits at a particularly nuanced intersection for each person, and in all different life areas.  Finding that sweet spot is a part of helping a person to grow and develop. Missing it is to miss a prime developmental opportunity. The famous Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky  first

vygotsky

Dr. Lev Vigotsky (1896-1934)

described this area with the intimidating phrase, “the zone of proximal development”, but we can understand it as the tension point of PUSH where  just the right amount of risk will allow the person to burst into the next level of learning and growth.

So, there’s a rambling group of morning thoughts about not only the scary side of risking, and the great need for us to know people well enough to help find that sweet spot where failure is not disaster, but where the push point for growth is identified and allowed to be pressed.

References:

Perske, R. (1972). The dignity of risk and the MR. Mental Retardation, 10(1), 24.

Vygotsky, L. (1987). Zone of proximal development. Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes, 5291, 157.Wolfensberger, W. P., Nirje, B., Olshansky, S.,

Wolfensberger, W. P., Nirje, B., Olshansky, S., Perske, R., & Roos, P. (1972). The principle of normalization in human services.

A Foundation of…. Icebergs?

imagesMetaphors have great power to shape our mindsets, govern our ideas, and make things crystal clear. Today, I was in a forum to discuss the strength of a movement. The metaphor of a “foundation for inclusion of people with disability” was used, and we all immediately identified with it. Every building needs a firm foundation, made of solid concrete, or strong steel sunk deep in the ground. Otherwise, we are a house built on stilts, easily swayed by a change in the weather. Good metaphor, indeed.

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We immediately began to work on what those foundational concrete blocks might be…great policies, strong models, documentation proving best practice, committed staff, standards of inclusive practice (i.e. is 50% inclusive OK, or is it 80%).  Great to get a handle on this, and a seemingly sensible approach.

However, a second metaphor was posed…one that struck me hard. Perhaps the foundation is not made of concrete block. Perhaps the foundation of our house of ‘inclusion’ is made of icebergs. At the tips are the visible icebergcomponents –policies, program models, rules, standard operating procedures, staff commitment, effective procedures…beneath sits an unseen mountain of commitments to people, values, depthful understanding, sense of purpose, history, biases, passion, world views, spiritual and societal beliefs, and desire for change. The tip is easy to formulate – just find the right model, develop the right protocol, replicate a ‘best practice’, determine the proper quality indicators, write the standards for inclusion.

And, yet, the result will, in the end, be driven by that massive, unseen, powerful part of the iceberg. I suppose what is under the tip of the iceberg will remain a mystery, by definition. By its nature, we may never know it all. However, our acknowledgement that it exists, that it is powerful, and that it drives what will in fact bloom from our efforts commands my attention today.

Thanks go to the good people at the Pennsylvania Inclusion Higher Education Consortium along with today’s thought provocateur John O’Brien for this rich discussion and where it may lead.

Invitation

I astonish peopleYesterday, I asked a question to a group of about 40 people from all walks of life, gathered under a hand-constructed hut providing afternoon respite from the hot Tamil Nadu sun. Sitting, standing, listening intently, are men, women and children, mostly south Indian, from this rural part of Tamil Nadu.  People from the surrounding villages, people connected in some manner to this fledgling but beautiful effort in the district of Villipuram to bring together people with and without disability in communion, community and relationship.  All of these people care about restoring the plot of land they have to fruitfulness, and restoring themselves and others to the notion of community that, for many of them, has rejected them so profoundly. Some young people in the group are volunteers from Spain, France, the Netherlands, and Germany, here for a few months or weeks to try to move the world forward a bit. Most, though, are from right here in Tamil Nadu, and have stories of brutality and rejection to tell that would make your hair stand on end. They are people who grew up in orphanages, or were abandoned in hospitals, or had stones thrown at them, or were told, quite literally, that there is no place for them in the world. There are also families and those who have been caught up in the vision that this little place holds for us to learn how to be together.

It’s a question which seems unaskable, when standing in front such a group.  It’s rude. It seems an affront, an impossibly personal question when one considers the truth about what we as humans have perpetrated on such people and their families. I steeled myself, and asked what their vision was for their lives and for the future. Seems a hard thing to ask someone who is in a small lake of calm after a sea of trouble. It’s a lot to ask. And the answers came flowing.  Many people even stood up, came to the front of the room to be heard by all of us. Such dreams we humans have. Such robustness. And here is one of the statements that caused a small shift inside me.  One that I believe made an impact on each of us in that gathering in shelter from the harsh Tamil sun.

“I want to be invited to come back”

What a bold and powerful assertion for this South Indian man to make.  He has been so profoundly rejected, this man.  And yet resolute that it is not enough for us, in these enlighted days, to allow him a seat at the community table.  To afford him some sort of job. To allow him the right to marry. To make sure his children and all others are allowed into what he calls ‘normal schools’, to not ask for his father’s name but to call him by his very own name.

Does he recognize what he is really asking?  Much more than simply a pathway back to typical Indian life, or permission to enter.  That is not enough, not by a long shot. He understands that after such rejection and brutality, he wants to be issued an invitation.  A request.  One that allows him to decide whether such a community should be graced with his investment, his presence, his gift. It seems to me only fair.

His final vision is that he will “astonish people”. That his children and grandchildren will sit all around him in respect, and look to him for wisdom.  Again, it is only fair.