Sunday, November 04, 2007

Satyagraha–Driving change through peaceful resistance & commitment to truth

Editors Note: A couple of months ago, my oldest daughter, Kelly Lavin, shared the exciting news that she is engaged to be married to a young man she has been dating for the past three years. Her boyfriend, Sahil Merchant is from India, and the couple has decided to hold their wedding ceremony in Mumbai in 2008. Needless to say, my entire family will be traveling to India next year to attend the wedding and finally meet Sahil’s family.
Kelly’s news has stimulated a lot of interest within our family about India and its culture. As a way of preparing for our trip, we have been reading a lot of material and renting movies to gain a better understanding about the similarities and differences of our countries. A week ago, we rented the movie "Gandhi" to learn more about how India had gained its independence and formed a new democracy. As many of you know, Gandhi won nine academy awards in 1982 including Best Picture of the Year. I did see this movie shortly after its release, however, it had a more profound impact on me after a second viewing several years later. So much so, I was compelled to write about it below.
I recently watched the academy award winning movie "Gandhi" for the second time. And there was a particular movie scene that seared an indelible message in my memory that I will soon not forget. About midway through the film, human rights activist Mohandus Gandhi is involved in a heated discussion with his colleagues about India’s preparedness for independence and self-rule. Gandhi is listening quietly and intently to the provocative views of his associates about ending the oppressive rule of the British government in his country. Suddenly, he breaks his silence without a spoken word. He stands up and walks over to a servant who has just entered the room to serve refreshments. To the amazement of his colleagues, Gandhi takes the tray away from the servant and respectfully gestures him out of the room. Then he assumes the servant’s role and begins serving the tea and refreshments to a disquieted and embarrassed team of colleagues. Gandhi had delivered a not so subtle message to his peers.
The inherent parallels and veiled hypocrisy within my own field of work did not go wasted on this film critic. Many leaders in the field of disability rights are rightfully vocal about how people with disabilities are oppressed and woefully excluded from the mainstream of our community life. Yet many of these same leaders promote the "achievements" of programs that segregate youth and adults with disabilities from the rest of us. We say publicly that we want to see more people with disabilities working successfully in competitive jobs in the workforce. Yet so many are content to construct buildings and even celebrate programs that insure long-term dependency and service outcomes. No wonder why people are so confused.
Think about this thought for a moment. What do you think would happen if we segregated any specific minority group in America and made it legal to pay them sub-minimum wages? Well, guess what? It is legal to segregate adults with disabilities and pay them below minimum scale wages in America. Many disability employment advocates believe this arrangement is OK. I am not one of them. I believe a standard of integrated employment at minimum or prevailing wages in the workforce should apply to all. And I believe the arguments concerning individual productivity and fair wages is a matter of matching people and their skill sets to the right business and job situation. We now have nationally demonstrated practices in customized and supported employment that give us the opportunity to achieve this goal when we focus our attention to serving people one person at a time.
Sadly, the issue of human rights in the area of disability employment services has divided natural allies into separate camps. One group believes strongly in the power of vision and promoting progressive practices such as customized employment to obtain integrated job outcomes and eliminate sub-minimum wages. Another group believes segregated disability service programs and sub-minimum wages are necessary because people with disabilities are not up to the task of working at competitive job standards. Still others believe that any form of work is beyond the abilities and expectations of many people with significant disabilities; therefore, other structured activities are OK because they are the "informed choice" of individuals served. Of course, there is a group that believes a full range of all services is necessary to meet varied interests and support needs.
The inherent problem here is deciding who decides. Also, there is a growing faction raising fundamental questions about individual expectations vs. informed choice when it comes to working. Of course, a related problem is deciding who will be pay the cost for whatever decision is reached. Should the public be expected to pay for long-term costs of "choices" that lead to higher degrees of dependency? Is this issue complex? You bet it is.
The in-fighting between the progressive and conservative wings of the disability movement has been a discouragement to me. After many years of national research and employment service demonstrations, I believe we have an obligation to extend the best of what we know to all. To me, it’s never been about being right, it’s about doing what is right. And the last time I checked, people with disabilities are Americans with the same rights and dreams as the rest of us.
This past week, I talked with a manager in my agency about an individual we placed into a competitive job. This individual was earning about .70 an hour in center-based work program at another agency when referred to us. The young man presently lives in a nursing home setting with his elderly parents and has an intellectual disability. I guess his test scores say he has an IQ of 38 and he has a history of soiling his pants two or three times a week. Today, he is working in an integrated competitive job matched closely to his talents. And the employer is highly supportive of his job situation. Our staff are actively engaged with the business and assist in managing this individual’s service needs on a day-to-day basis.
Two agencies, two views. One truth-This individual with an IQ of 38 who has a tendency to soil his pants is competitively employed and makes more than $11.00 per hour!
There are many lessons to be learned from the great leaders of past civil and human rights movements. And I was especially humbled by the compelling wisdom, unyielding purpose, and personal humility of Gandhi. He taught others by example and approached human rights goals in South Africa and then later in India with dignity and moral principle. In 1948, he fell to the bullet of an assassin at the age of 78.
It was once said that "Gandhi never fought with his body but his spirit." He referred to his vision and practice of nonviolent resistence as "satyagraha." The principle behind satyagraha is that the means used to achieve end results are interwoven and inseparable. Satyagraha is a nonviolent force that embraces higher truths to achieve a just means. According to Gandhi, the strategy of satyagraha is to "remove the antagonisms without harming the antagonists themselves."
I truly understand what he is trying to say. I do not view my colleagues with different views as the enemy and mean them no harm. The frustration is advancing truth and managing the resistence and fears within groups who are threatened by progressive change.
Here is what Gandhi once wrote about his success in leading social and political change–
"In traditional violent and nonviolent conflict, the goal is to defeat the opponent or frustrate the opponent’s objectives, or to meet one’s own objectives despite the efforts of the opponent to obstruct these. In satyagraha, by contrast, these are not the goals. "The satyagrahi’s object is to convert, not to coerce, the wrong-doer.
Success is defined as cooperating with the opponent to meet a just end that the opponent is unwittingly obstructing. The opponent must be converted, at least as far as to stop obstructing the just end, for this cooperation to take place."
You know, I think we could use a healthy measure of satyagraha in the disability and employment rights movement. To this end, I find it hard to believe that any leader associated with disability rights would object to the idea of extending competitive employment and wage opportunities to as many people with disabilities as possible. Is this not a human rights goal worthy of pursuing? As leaders in the disability employment field, it is only just to support such opportunities and promote them for all. And anything less is just paving unhelpful speed bumps to public education and the welcoming of adults with disabilities into the mainstream of our workforce and communities.
As I studied Gandhi’s positions in advancing human rights, I also learned he had this to say–
"Fraud and untruth are stalking the world. I cannot sit as a helpless witness to such a situation...If today I sit quiet and inactive, God will take me to task for not using up the treasure He had given me, in the midst of the conflagration that is enveloping the whole world."
Well, I may not been given the gifts of wisdom nor leadership skills of a Mohandus Gandhi but I’ve repeatedly witnessed the message of truth. And I live with this burden of unlocking the truth for as many people as possible. It is a duty. And the cause is just.


Anonymous A Graduate of Rise said...


I think you are absolutely right about embracing the enemy.

8:48 AM  
Blogger Don Lavin said...

Thanks Graduate.

As I consider the issue closely, it’s quite apparent that our detractors of an employment-first vision are driven by different motivations despite the rhetoric about their purpose and intent. As I pointed out in my article “The Axis of Inertia,” a complex array of fears and attitudes tend to shape views about our competencies and what is possible.

I try to approach this issue logically. Whenever a truth claim is made about why something CAN’T be done, we can find specific situations where it has been done successfully. I tried to point this out in my example about the young man with an IQ of 38 who has a problem with soiling his pants. Before he was referred to my agency, he was earning .71 an hour and worked limited hours in a center-based employment environment. I would be willing to put forward the hypothesis that this gentleman would be excluded from job placement considerations in a high majority of service organizations serving adults with developmental disabilities in the United States. However, he was successfully placed and makes excellent wages and this makes the truth claim false despite the so-called probabilities.

Now, there are many detractors who might call this case an exception or an outlier in the probabilities. And what I am saying is “Why is this so?” If it has been done once, it can be repeated if the right circumstances and conditions can be replicated. It’s called employment customization.

When I make my presentation entitled “Truth Happens,” I ask my audience to give me a show of hands in regards to specific truth claims that have been successfully hurdled. You know the list…we don’t have the transportation, parents are reluctant, employers have serious doubts, the job candidate works too slow, we don’t have the money, blah, blah, blah...

I ALWAYS have an ample number of hands going up in the audience about each truth claim that has been successfully breached. This tells me there are many truth claims that are being successfully hurdled by direct service practitioners. The single common thread driving success seems to be placing individuals at the center of the employment planning and assistance to be provided. Said simply, success is attainable if we choose to serve people one at a time creatively and within a problem-solving team model (if appropriate).

This brings me back to the central issue. I am willing to bet that most detractors would not object to the idea of people with disabilities working in the workforce at competitive wages (at least in principle). The objections lie in the details and most do not believe in either themselves or the possibilities of making it happen for some folks they represent. We went through the exact same arguments in breaking down attitudinal barriers about the “need” for the institutionalization of adults with significant disabilities. The arguments were hollow because the truth claims were wrong. The professionals working in institutions were (and still are in some cases) good people with good intent working within a system where practices rarely result in obtaining bona-fide outcomes of integrated employment and community living.

We need to continue to press our arguments without making them personal. This includes firm resistance and direct challenges to systems of services that are known to reinforce segregation and are counterintuitive to our civil rights goals.

Perhaps, most professionals don’t see it this way, but I believe we are civil and human rights leaders. And accordingly, we need to behave this way to obtain real and measurable change.

10:50 AM  

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