How to Become Strong By Understanding Disadvantage

2012 Marine Corps Trials Day 2.  Photo courtesy of DVIDSHUB.
We hear lots about excellence these days.  So what are the opportunities for persons with disabilities and disadvantages to drive excellence?  It may be that those who are in the throes of disadvantage might not have a fair shot at success.  But there are opportunities for everyone to aspire to excellence, through the cultivation of empathy for those who are disadvantaged.

This is a touching article about a doctor who was concerned about his own mother during her  disabling illness.  The illness was Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder that affects movement.  In the Times article, Dr. Sandeep Jauhar is rigged with a device that allows him to personally experience the sensation of his muscles turning to jelly, like those who have Parkinson’s, like his mother.

Why would he do such a thing?  Because he always wanted to understand his mother’s perspective during the illness.  Devices are also available that replicating the effects of emphysema, psychiatric illness, and nerve disease related to diabetes.

While I haven’t experienced it yet, I have also heard rave reviews about a similar effort called Dark Table.  Dark Table is a restaurant in Vancouver where food is served and eaten in a room which is completely dark.  The servers are blind or visually impaired, and the guests commit to keeping their gadgets off and eating their meals in the dark.  The dark dining experience increases the awareness of other senses such as hearing, touch, and taste.  It creates jobs for persons with disabilities.  And it also helps people empathize with the perspective of the visually impaired.

Emotional Intelligence in Workplace Conflict

On the human resources side of the fence, it’s possible to develop greater empathy for those we are in conflict with.  The nurturing of empathy is important for industrial relations, the professional development of managers, performance conversations, and the general growth of all staff.  How do you teach workplace empathy?  I have been involved in complex roleplay scenarios called Conflict Theatre.  The theatre scenes are designed so that each scenario is integrated into well-developed back stories and emotional perspectives of the actors.

The theatre is presented so as to invite audience members to step into the shoes of an individual actor and attempt to change the course of the conflict.  It’s one thing to sit back and observe from and armchair, and develop an opinion about how things should be done.  But the real expertise is to understand the full emotional context of each player in a conflict, an understanding which is far more vivid when experienced directly.

Empathizing with diverse perspectives turns out to be a key attribute of those who face conflict with dignity and grace.  It takes you beyond the negotiations that resembles bartering for trinkets, and even beyond the interest-based bargaining of those vying for a win-win solution.  You have to learn how to understand people as individuals based on their perspective and story, not their category or “type.”  This includes understanding their perspective when they struggle with ability, whether it’s professional ability or impairments.

Using Emotional Intelligence to Improve Workplace Culture

The thing I find fascinating about these initiatives is their scientific and cultural back-story.  The Parkinson’s device was built in response to well-documented complaints that patients perceive their nurses and doctors lack empathy for their hardships.  Blind dining is traced back to Switzerland by a man named Jorge Spielmann, whose concept was imitated in restaurants in London, Paris, and New York.  Conflict Theatre in Vancouver comes out David Diamond’s Theatre for Living, which itself comes out of Theatre for the Oppressed, created by Augusto Boal in Brazil in the 1970’s.  Theatre for the Oppressed, as you might guess from the name, arises from social critiques and movements to overcome repression, with an intellectual legacy dating well back into the 50’s.

To affect society on the larger scale we need to reach into the emerging science, the social experiments in many countries, and the lessons learned many decades into the past.  The knowledge and confidence of those with power and privilege can pale in comparison to the universe of individual experiences.  In order to take full advantage of the best information when advancing ourselves in this world, we need humility about how right we truly are, curiosity for knowledge that is new, and sensitivity to the lessons from other cultures and other moments in time.  Only then can each of us aspire to excellence.

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