Most people are pretty familiar with the idea of a canary in a coal mine. The idea was that coalminers brought a canary down into the tunnels with them to give them advanced warning of when dangerous gases were present, in the hopes that it would give them time to get out before they lost consciousness or were trapped by an explosion. Canaries are usually quite noisy birds, but they stop singing if there isn’t enough oxygen, so a miner who’s paying attention has the chance to get out – FAST!
Canaries saved countless hundreds of lives over the years in mining operations before more technological solutions for measuring oxygen levels were developed. Which means that if I had been a miner, protecting and caring for that little bird would have been a pretty high priority for me, since it’s sole purpose in life was to keep me alive in unpleasant circumstances.
Which makes me think of the way we tend to collectively address issues like disability or autism or mental health issues. There is this tendency to want to “fix” people. To make it so that they stop responding “inappropriately” or “fit in” better. But what if we viewed those with disability, autism or mental health issues like canaries – vulnerable yet valuable members of our community, who had the capacity to help us see when we might be in trouble, and make adjustments to the way in which we were living sooner rather than later?
For example, many people with disabilities struggled with being able to come off the edge of sidewalks onto the roads, until legislation came in to effect that meant that sidewalks ended up with sloped curbs. It helps those with disabilities, but also makes it easier for anyone pushing a stroller, pulling a suitcase, walking with a toddler or bringing their bike up to lock it to a lamp post.
Or take the way that school classrooms have evolved over the past thirty years since the introduction of inclusion of students with disabilities to include more sensory stimulation, visual cues for transitions and a more thorough use of all of experiential learning opportunities. It helps those students with disabilities, while significantly enhancing the education of all of the children in the classroom.
All of this leaves me wondering what would happen if we listened to what some of the other canaries were saying? How much benefit would we get as a society if we made adjustments to care for our most vulnerable around issues like:
- flourescent lights
- perfume and scented products
- ramps in and out of small businesses and strip malls, as well as older shopping districts?
- government forms (especially for social services)
- how easy it is (or not!) to make an appointment with your doctor
- making space as a society to be honest about the highs and lows of our emotions through rituals that have fallen by the wayside (like wakes and barn dances and group singing in the pub)
- reducing the information overload by creating stricter legislation around advertising
What would be the impact if we went one step further, and looked at some of the best practices for those with disabilities – like occupational therapy (including sensory and movement breaks), stress management techniques (such as mindfulness or pacing strategies), and community supports, and simply started putting them in place for everyone?
I know that we’ve started to do this already, but what would happen if we employed increasing numbers of those with disabilities on advisory boards, assuming that they might have observations and perspectives that would be valuable to everyone?
How would it change our collective impression of those with disabilities – indeed, how would it change our lives in general – if people who were vulnerable became some of our most valuable assets?
Interested in discussing how disability might be an asset in your organization? Interested in talking more about how you view your own disability, or the disability of a family member? Please feel free to get in touch today!