By Joe Moore, Adaptive Expeditions Founding Executive Director and ACA Adaptive Paddling Committee Chair
Have you ever walked into a place and had the overwhelming feeling that you can be yourself without anyone pre-judging anything about you? Without knowing why or consciously thinking about it, you just feel good…. like you really fit in.
Have you ever felt the opposite sensation? Imagine how powerful that sensation could be if there really was something different about you.
According to the United Nations (2), more than 650 million individuals across the globe live with a disability. According to the U.S. Census, if individuals with disabilities were a formally recognized minority group, then it would be the largest by far in America with around 58 million individuals.
Cultivating inclusive culture presents a longstanding challenge in our society. First, the goal was gender inclusion, then race inclusion. Huge strides have been made toward gender and race social equality (although neither effort is anywhere near complete). Unfortunately, progress toward creating a culture of inclusion for individuals with disabilities lags behind most other social change.
All organizations express a culture. Organizational cultures can empower employees, customers and members – or not. Organizations outwardly express culture with subtle nuances: attitude, voice, persona, mannerisms, habits (like smiling and laughing), etc. These often-subconscious subtleties, taken collectively, likely determine more than any other single factor, whether individuals with disabilities (or any other group) will enjoy their experience and want to return to a program.
Recognizing the need and understanding how to create a culture of inclusion presents one of the greatest challenges in the world of adaptive paddling. Non-inclusive culture is a barrier to paddlesports program integration that stands more dauntingly than other barriers. No technology will overcome this barrier. No simple prescription exists.
Rarely, if ever, would someone or an organization simply deny participation to a person with a disability who can safely participate. Today, discrimination occurs much more subtly. For example, the United Nations has recognized:
[People with disabilities] can be excluded by other types of barriers, for example oral communication which ignores the needs of the hearing impaired and written information which ignores the needs of the visually impaired. Such barriers are the result of ignorance and lack of concern; they exist despite the fact that most of them could be avoided at no great cost by careful planning (2).
Simple mechanical rules like implementing assistive technologies, using person-first terminology, maintaining programming flexibility, emphasizing abilities, avoiding the word “handicapped”, and other easily applied rules can go a long way towards projecting inclusive culture. However, these simple rules are only a part of an equation for inclusion. And, to be honest, they can also provide a political-correctness mask for an underlying organizational culture that is not inclusive.
An organization can follow every best practice and still not convey that welcoming, empowering feeling. If taking time to build adaptations before the start of a kayaking program is really not worth the extra hour of staff time, that reality will ooze through the organization’s pores. If staff have serious doubts whether any individual should take off their prosthetic legs and go canoeing, the lack of education will be unavoidably obvious. If an organization measures the bottom-line only in dollar signs, that value-system cannot be hidden.
An organizational culture that creates a welcoming, inclusive feeling emanates from the hearts and minds of individuals. A smile, excitement, and positive energy always shine through. If someone really wants to be inclusive, but finds himself or herself paralyzed by the fear of saying or doing the “wrong thing,” that lack of experience will be obvious, but, more importantly, so will the underlying drive for self-improvement. An underlying drive for self-improvement coupled with smiles, excitement, and positive energy makes “saying or doing the wrong thing” easily forgivable.
Individuals and organizations must not just be willing, but they must really want to undertake extra effort to break down barriers. They have to want it strongly enough to make small sacrifices of time, be willing to risk embarrassment of saying or doing the “wrong thing,” be willing to absorb the cost of a few extra staff hours each year, and they have to feel good about making those choices.
How can we help effect this social change? Educate and demonstrate with actions! Go out and find someone with a disability, develop a friendship, teach him or her to paddle, and then share your story with the world.
(1) International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
(2) World Programme of Action Concerning Disabled Persons, adopted by the General Assembly on 3 December 1982, by its resolution 37/52.