In support of the blind leading the blindfolded
It has taken me until today to fully grasp the meaning of Charlton’s age-old adage, “nothing about us without us”. Since the end of the last millennium, disability and later other oppressed minority groups have demanded a place at the decision-making table, with US Congress member Shirley Chisholm being posthumously credited with advising the oppressed that, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring in a folding chair.” I blithely assumed that this was purely because people make self-interested, ill-informed, condescending, and just generally bad decisions about people who are not in the room. For some reason, it just didn’t occur to me that this was also a potentially serious problem with diversity training until I read this seminal article by Silverman (2015).
Take, for example, experiential training designed to foster empathy for blind people. Imagine you are blindfolded suddenly and asked to walk around the crowded training classroom, take a seat at the table where you saw a pile of assorted change* and asked you to sort and count it. How do you think you would feel after tripping up repeatedly on the way to the hidden table and then fumbling desperately in confusion? Do you imagine that you would view blind people as being as capable and independent as sighted people? The admittedly limited evidence suggests not. It suggests that this very effectively teaches trainees what it is like to experience the trauma of sudden sight loss, but not what it is like to live having adapted and learned effective coping strategies. Studies have found that most people who undertake such training come away believing more strongly than before that the visually impaired were incapable and must suffer frustration and fear their whole lives, despite clear evidence that, on average, blind people are just as capable as employees and at least as happy and well adjusted as sighted people. Such biases in understanding have clear implications for recruitment and selection decisions.
Now imagine that a person who has been blind for years, or possibly their whole life, walks you through these things and does what for you seems impossible without your sight deftly and with little apparent effort? This might well impress upon you that over time, blind people can and do learn to cope well. Someone should do a study and prove this, because at present, I understand this is still conjecture, no studies having yet been conducted. The development of disability awareness training in general appears to still be in its infancy, and that on its own is something that should concern us all.
It’s not just the blind leading the blind
Of course, the same principle applies to all diversity issues, to all oppressed groups. Handing a cis-gendered white man a VR headset and inviting them to experience life as a black trans woman for ten minutes is going to teach them only how traumatic it is suddenly to lose so much of their unearned privilege; it doesn’t give a good understanding of what it is like to grow up and live as another person day in day out. For one thing, they know the experience will end and in fact, can end it at any time of their choosing. This approach is therefore worse than limited; it is misleading. I cannot help but wonder whether being told how hard life is for oppressed social groups in other forms of training might have a similar impact. Perhaps the more important lesson is how those who have learned to cope with loss have developed resilience, what supports them to survive and thrive, and how we could all put similar support in place to help one another to live better.
Resilience can be a double-edged sword. While it is important to recognise that many people and communities grow from their experiences of adversity, resilience is frequently weaponised against people. Everyone from schoolchildren to employees are trained in resilience in preference to managing the stresses to which they are exposed, while the ongoing abuse of populations and communities that are seen to be inherently resilient following centuries of oppression is excused by the fact they are resilient, and therefore capable of survival. Why should the rest of us trouble ourselves, the argument goes, let alone invest scarce resources to alleviate the oppression of people who are used to being oppressed? In my experience, these issues are rarely, if ever, raised, let alone addressed because it points to the invisible violence exacted against everyone in society and addressing it would mean seriously reconsidering what people need and how far short our society is falling in meeting those needs. Since most people would rather die than embrace radical change, little changes.
The diversity tax and wider considerations
Of course, if we simply require minorities to develop teaching materials and impress them on a captive audience in training sessions, we will only further increase the burden placed on oppressed minority groups both to survive a hostile society and simultaneously to change it from the outside, something dubbed a “diversity tax” on people’s energy and agency. We instead need minority groups to be recruited and integrated into our organisations and to foster deep empathy and a persistent curiosity of mind that most people, being instead fundamentally self-obsessed, lack. Openly diverse working and friendship groups have been shown to limit the development of the prevailing ‘them and us’ mentality that fosters conflict, strangles communication and lowers productivity. It also makes life easier for all involved.
The difficulty in many organisations is that even if recruitment and selection procedures were entirely transparent, fair and equitable (a glance at the proportion of people running organisations who are women or from diverse backgrounds suggests that on balance they are not), organisations are unlikely to find many visibly diverse people in the recruitment pool, to begin with because they have suffered from a lack of confidence, development opportunities, or have had their resources stretched so thinly that they could not take advantage of opportunities that came their way. The problem of discrimination is so all-pervasive that it cannot be handled just at an organisational level. Much wider changes are necessary.
* For anyone reading this after we finally stop using ‘real’ money: before we were all forced to paid for everything with contactless card or phone payments, people paid for many goods and services with physical money – metal coins and linen, and later plastic, notes. It was a happy time, where cash machines would issue only £20 notes that bus drivers and shopkeepers would refuse to accept on the basis that they had run out of change, and where the perpetual shortage of £5 notes in circulation meant that change for high value notes was often all in coins. The weight of loose change deformed men’s trouser pockets until they wore a hole through the lining and spilled away, while a woman could turn her handbag into a makeshift flail with the weight of small change from a single purchase. And just like that, I suddenly feel very old.
Silverman, A. M. (2015). The perils of playing blind: Problems with blindness simulation and a better way to teach about blindness. The Journal of Blindness Innovation and Research, 5(2). https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/jbir/jbir15/jbir050201.html
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