Here is the speech I gave in Vancouver at last night's first ever Public Salon presented by Sam Sullivan's Global Civic Policy Society. Thanks to everyone for your suggestions about what I should say in my seven minutes – a discipline all speakers found both intimidating and stimulating.
I have seven minutes to convince you that people with disabilities represent an untapped resource to address our pressing social and environmental challenges.
Here’s how I came to that certainty.
Twenty – one years ago, a small band of parents came together to address a seemingly unrelated question: What will happen to our sons and daughters with disabilities when we die?
It won’t come as any surprise to you but behind every person with a disability are a Mom and a Dad who worry about them, forever. Who nag, Sam, if you don’t eat your vegetables you’ll never grow up to become Mayor or discover eco-density! Rick, how are you going to wheel around the world if you don’t get enough sleep?
We created Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN) to address the future well being of our sons and daughters with a disability. Little did we know we were just ahead of a demographic tsunami – thanks to medical advancements and higher social expectations the world is witnessing the first generation of people with disabilities to outlive their parents. Since then our social invention, our books, our ideas have spread around the world to over 40 locations.
Initially, we became lay experts at special needs trusts, wills, estates and tax planning. However, we quickly discovered these were tools of the mind. It didn’t matter how much money we put aside or how well our wills were written, they could not answer the fundamental question: Who would be there when we die? To be friends, to be companions, to be in love with our sons and daughters and to be loved by them.
To gain peace of mind we had to discard all our assumptions about planning for the future and about disability. We now know, one of the biggest handicaps experienced by people with disabilities is their social isolation and loneliness.
So PLAN pioneered an effective, practical, hands on approach to welcoming people who have been isolated, back into friendship and community life. Even folks who have spent decades living in institutions have been loved into life. Our specialty is strategically creating social networks or circles of friends. We are in the business of nurturing belonging.
The following comments are typical of the reciprocity felt by people who have been introduced into the lives of someone who has been marginalized or labeled:
· Martha IS the neighbourhood
· Because Bill is so open about his feelings I find I can talk about my own – something I feel society has discouraged in men
· Maria has shown me how to appreciate the little things in life more. When I’m in her presence I’m calmer, she slows me down.
· With Josh in my classroom I’ve noticed the rest of my students are gentler and kinder.
Our success has attracted others worried about an epidemic of loneliness in our society. Just recently my wife Vickie Cammack, and co-founder of PLAN, created TYZE – an on line resource to reduce isolation for the elderly, family caregivers, people with chronic illness, who are homeless, have cancer, are in prison, wounded in war or immigrants. It is being implemented in Canada, the US, the UK and soon parts of Europe. We expect millions will benefit from what we have learned about belonging.
We have learned that the vitality and the richness of life for all of us, is to love and to be loved – regardless of infirmity, condition, situation or vulnerability. When people belong, the soul returns, life takes on meaning and the fabric of our society is strengthened.
Isolation underpins our most pervasive environmental and social challenges. Yet, we continue to spend billions in British Columbia every year to address poverty, homelessness, chronic illness, drug dependency and climate change by funding tools of the mind.
We build housing not homes. We implement drug strategies without addressing the deepening poverty of spirit in our culture. We offer rehabilitation without providing outlets for creativity: welfare without expecting contribution; disability programs that isolate; places of work that are inhospitable; paid care that is joyless; support that erodes the natural resilience of families; and seniors services that don’t celebrate lives of contribution.
We tackle food security without nurturing trust; plan neighbourhoods without taking ‘visitability’ into consideration. And we propose environmental strategies without addressing the soul destroying destructive pursuits of busy-ness and electronic gadgets.
We ignore the soul at our peril. It is costly financially, spiritually, emotionally and environmentally. It is in our best interests to pay attention to the ingredients of life: the heart, the spirit and our connectedness with one another.
People with disability can teach us about these ingredients. They know that when people belong, they contribute, their life has meaning, they take better care of themselves, of each other and of their environment.
We are a society TOO much in our mind. Yet our minds have not been successful in addressing our big social and environmental challenges. Perhaps we overrate the capacity of the human mind. The mind provides the skeleton for life but the soul provides the vitality, the life force, the texture, the body.
Our minds need help. They need to be accompanied by the soul, the heart and the spirit.
So I leave you tonight with a call for a different type of Global Warming. PLAN and many other organizations in Vancouver and across Canada intend to create a Revolution of Belonging. We want to move belonging from sentimentality into society’s structures.
· Check out our bilingual slow thinking website where we are exploring the rich sources of belonging.
· Contact me about our Better Together coalition here in Vancouver.
The great French mystic Simone Weill wrote: Intelligence is enlightened by love. Thanks to our sons and daughter we’ve learned to get to the heart of the matter. PLAN is much more than a disability organization. Come join us.
Let’s create a city, a region a province, a country, a world where Everyone Belongs.
Beautiful, succinct, trenchant, well done. Your blogs have great information and more importantly they are good for my soul.
Beautiful, and energizing me to action! Thanks, Al.
Just catching up on your brilliant blog. Lovely to also see Simone Weill being reference. A vastly underrated philosopher and the backbone of my wife’s outlook on life.