GaryKarp's picture
Catching Up With a Radical Social Transformation

Sometimes the world changes around us so quickly that it takes a little extra time to catch up with new truths and their implications.

It takes even longer when those changes contradict deeply-held beliefs, like the idea that the earth is flat, that washing is bad for us (an unfortunate view in the eighteenth century), or that the advent of computing would lead to a paperless society and a four day work week.

Being behind the mark is bad business. What if a failure to recognize such change meant missing out on a large swath of a productive labor pool? What if you had your eyes shut to an entire market segment—or are falling short in your mission of serving a community?

A social transformation of this scale and importance is happening around the very notion of disability. What it is and what it means and who “the disabled” are is very, very different than it has ever been before in the entire history of humanity throughout the universe.

No kidding. I can’t avoid grandiose superlatives when I describe it: radical, historic, revolutionary, utterly transformative. Many, if not most, of us are not tuned in to this incredible change, still operating on old models. People with disabilities are emerging, what I call “The Missing Piece of the Diversity Mosaic.”

It’s time for a fresh look. You might be surprised. In fact, I’ll bet you a batch of my famous homemade toffee that you WILL be surprised.

What comes to mind for you when you hear the word “disability.” Tragedy? Loss? Limitation? Benefits and entitlement programs? More regulatory compliance burdens? It’s probably the last thing in the world you want to think about, much less be true for you?

Or perhaps you think of inspirational people who have "overcome" their disabilities, meeting the test for what is actually an artificially raised bar (when you take a moment to think about it).

All understandable enough, but the changes in what I call the Modern Disability experience are clear and observable.

People with disabilities are more healthy, active, and athletic (world class disabled athletes will compete in the Paralympic Games [www.paralympic.org] in London this September). They live in a much more accessible world (you’ve surely noticed the level entrances, the elevators and ramps, the wide bathroom stalls, the Braille signage, the closed captioning on television, etc., etc., etc.). They are more highly educated and so more career-oriented, and are able to travel. They are empowered by technologies—adapted personal computing being possible for anyone with the cognitive capacity—not to mention extreme advances in the sophistication of wheelchairs.

I know of what I speak. On the Fourth of July, 2012 I will celebrate my thirty-ninth anniversary as a wheelchair user. I fell out of a tree when I was eighteen, crushed two vertebrae in my spine, and compressed my spinal cord. I have not walked since.

It hasn’t slowed me down a bit. There is no reason why it should.

I am undeniably a lot more mobile than I was in the 70s. The evolution of my wheelchair from the fifty pound chrome folding job I started in to the custom built powder blue titanium rigid frame twenty pounder I’m riding now is just one example of the astounding transformation I’ve experienced personally. I’m of a first generation of wheelchair users to live so active and full a life, possible only recently in our history.

As a motivational speaker I could easily give a talk that impresses you with how I’ve overcome my disability and thrived in my life. I could evoke a lot of emotion for the eighteen year old boy who endured a tragic experience and had to find his way to a new sense of self and how to function in the world, but I’m not so sure that actually inspires. I so often hear people say, “You’re such an inspiration, but I could never do what you do!”

“Hmmmmmm,” I thought. “I’ve inspired you to believe you CAN’T do something?”

Not the effect I’m after!

The power of my story is not so much in how I overcame disability, but how naturally I adapted to paralysis. What’s so amazing about disability today is that it is so doable. Living with a disability is much easier—and therefore less heroic—than it used to be. Living with disability used to require pushing through daunting obstacles. That’s what’s truly heroic—persevering against overwhelming odds and refusing to be stopped. I had to be carried up and down steps for five years to study ARCHITECTURE!! At the time, I had to be a little more heroic. Not getting an education was not an option for me.

Now the obstacles have fallen away. My former college campus is fully accessible. Living well with a disability is not as big a deal as it used to be. It’s just much, much easier. Most people with disabilities would tell you; “I’m just doing what I do and getting on with my life.” Because they can. At a scale never before possible. They don’t want to be admired for just getting out of bed and going to work or running their errands.

Hmmmmm. Not so inspirational, you say?

I think it’s more inspirational. Instead of marveling at a heroic few who through some force of will and determination beat the odds, consider what this really means! Now that it has become so much more common for people with disabilities to thrive, the message—and in fact one of the first things I learned about myself through my disability—is how adaptable we all are. We are built to adapt. It’s a miracle of being human, this innate capacity to adjust, to reach for our potential and live all the life we possibly can. Today’s transformed life with disability is proof of how remarkable every one of us is!

If we operated on that assumption as a society, what kind of a world would this be?

Which brings us to the business case: a large and growing segment of the population of people with disabilities are fully able and wanting to work. To contribute, create, and succeed. To collaborate as members of a team. To earn for themselves, live independently, have more options in their lives, pursue their talents, goals, and values. To help your organization achieve its goals and mission.

This could not be a more timely issue. The population of people who happen to have disabilities includes veterans coming back from war fully capable and deserving of meaningful work. We should also be assuming that the economy is going to get back on track once and for all, and we’ll need everybody on hand. The organizations who are ready to tap into these precious human resources will be in the best position to thrive in a new age of strength.

This is not a matter of “Hire the Handicapped.” It’s not an act of charity. It’s not a compromise. These are real people with real abilities who can—and should—be held to the same standards of performance and professionalism as anyone else. They have the same right and desire to be allowed to stretch and risk and fail. It’s everybody’s right.

When I share the story of Modern Disability with you and your organization, I help bring your workplace current with the true story of disability. I’ll show you how this story fits in your business, how it’s relevant to every person there, how it’s not as complicated or compliance-ridden as you might fear. I make people with disabilities real people for you, so you can be an early adopter, and take advantage of this emerging potential in your workplace, and to reach out to them as your customers.

And I’ll show you a good time (juggling, anyone?).

"We find the right speaker at the right budget."