After my last essay I was reminded that people with disability are still being called ‘inspiring’. My immediate reaction was to ask, “Who is inspired, to what are they inspired, and what action have they taken?” To be fair, I will allow that a person with a newly acquired disability may be inspired by a Paralympian to participate in sports. But that’s not how it usually goes.
The colonisation of identity
I have often been told that I am inspiring, and I have had to bite my tongue. I was supposed to feel good that I had excited a rush of emotions, triggering a dopamine hit like a small win on a poker machine. I don’t come with sound effects – just a cranky silence.
If my visible disability inspired action toward greater enactment of inclusion I wouldn’t be writing this essay. It doesn’t, because a dopamine hit triggered by an excitation of a sentiment of empathy or sympathy doesn’t change behaviour. It just stimulates a desire for more hits – more expressions of sentiment.
My theory is that my identity as a person with disability is co-opted in the service of making others feel good while delivering no benefit to me, or other people with disability.
Here is an illustration of how this works. The 2021 NSW Public Sector State of the Sector Report noted that people with disability are the most bullied segment of the workforce. It also noted (on page 39) that “Bullying, discrimination, sexual harassment and racism should not be tolerated.” Note the passive ‘should’, rather than an active ‘will’ or an imperative ‘must’. What is going on here?
On page 47 there is a graphic chart on bullying, which I will translated into approximate figures – people with disability 24+%, Aboriginal people 20+%. LGBTQI people around 17%. Two other groups over 15% were regional and frontline staff – that’s a whole different problem area.
On page 6, in Commissioner’s foreword, we read “The workplace experience for people with disability is an area in which I want to see us make significant improvements. There is much to be done to ensure people with disability feel they are included and belong in the workplace, and are supported to do their best work.” Note the expression “there is much to be done.”
The report does not say people with disability are inspiring. But the problem is the same. There is a problem – staff with disability are being bullied at a far higher rate than other staff. They are not, therefore, ‘supported to do their best work’. There is an acknowledgement that there is “much to be done”, but bullying is only passively frowned upon. Conflicted and mixed messages.
But here’s the thing – if you are supposed to be committed to Disability Inclusion, but you aren’t really, making a show of being so is all that is needed. That showing can give you a dopamine fix and fool you into thinking the sentiment is real. Substituting sentiment for action is something we all do. This is why we fail at our efforts to convert a ‘new year’s resolution’ into action.
Saying you are committed to Disability Inclusion doesn’t mean you are. Only acting out that commitment is real.
This is a cranky point for me. When people express empathy for, or sympathy toward, people with disability but don’t do anything it comes across as a form of abuse. Our identity is used to serve their ends – they get the dopamine hit and we get nothing – except an expectation we should feel good because we have inspired somebody to express a positive sentiment. This is not okay.
This isn’t a problem solely for people with disability. Inclusion in general is mired in sentimental inactivity. Iris Bohnet’s What Works is a critical examination of stalled efforts on women’s equality in workforces. Her solution is intentional and systematic action – going beyond the sentiment.
Leadership is where empathy goes to die
In an earlier essay I wrote about how it is acknowledged that leaders lack empathy, and this seems to be something innate in our evolutionary past and our neurology. I get that. I see that in many situations, empathy impedes effective leadership – war is a good example. I am not saying I approve, just that I understand that what lies in our evolutionary past is what it is.
But that’s not okay these days. Our cultural values have evolved faster than our personal reflexes. Even the military has had to adapt. Now concern for individual wellbeing is a necessary consideration. Expressing an inclusive sentiment, getting a dopamine hit and moving on without converting that sentiment into action isn’t okay – in theory. It still is in practice.
Part of the problem is the reliance on a purely intellectual input into management and leadership training – such as it is. Management and leadership practice is often several decades behind research and theory. But its worse than that. The idea of emotional intelligence has been around since 1990 and popularised in 1995 (when I first encountered it). That’s at least 27 years ago. And yet its little known among current managers/leaders.
The reality is that genuine empathy compels action – and that’s a problem within an organisational culture. Action demands Resources, Attention, Commitment and Effort (RACE). And it’s not a ‘race’ managers/leaders will run willingly without strong leadership from on high.
Inspiration without action is homeless
I get that when a person says a person with disability ‘inspires’ them that they intend to express genuine good intent. Melinda Briana Epler, in her great podcast, Leading with Empathy & Allyship, reminds the listener constantly of the need for consistent action. There is no point in being empathic if you don’t take action.
If being inspired is not anchored to a commitment to action it becomes parasitic. It doesn’t have a moral home and so colonises the identities of the people it purports to admire and support. It draws energy from the very people it imagines it is contributing to. It turns their needs into its nourishment.
Being inspired is self-serving – unless it triggers a passion backed by action in service of a cause.
It’s okay to be inspired to act by a person with disability
There are some people with disability who humble me. Their fortitude, determination, and dignity can leave me feeling like I still need to sort my attitude to what I have been through. We are all learning how to live with, and grow from, what has happened to us.
Acquiring a disability doesn’t turn people into saints. It doesn’t make them admirable or role models in a general sense. But what you can learn is that the human spirit has a capacity for resilience that can surprise those who have faced no great life challenge. This is true for so many people – those who have experienced abuse, torture, violence, and traumas of many kinds.
People with visible and obvious disabilities are people apart, a special category of inspirational and heroic sufferers of misfortune. We are the icebergs of humanity – the visible aspect of struggle and trauma. We represent, by accident, the human spirit as it expresses the universal potential for resilience.
If we inspire anything, let it be that you too can do what you think we do – and that this is what you find admirable.
I am aware that there are people who style themselves as disability advocates and who respond to the heroic/inspirational model. They have a role in that they may make a positive difference for some people.
But it’s a limited role that has no function inside organisations – which is where I am focused. Disability Inclusion is a tough gig – as is the whole spectrum of Diversity Equity & Inclusion. Organisational management and leadership are part art and part science – the science is developing constantly and the demand on the art is increasing.
We must avoid sentimentality and the allure of the dopamine hit and attend instead to genuine action for change based upon sincere empathic response. Real effective leadership in driving and fostering positive change depends upon clarity of awareness and depth of commitment to knowing what is going on.