Monday, July 21, 2014

Give Yourself the Gift of Difference

It's understandable why we thought the world was flat.
Trouble is brewing in the science world. Don’t worry, experts still agree the Earth is round. However, a growing list of neuroscientists in Europe are poo-pooing the ambitious undertaking known as the Human Brain Project (HBP). HBP is bankrolled by the European Union and the goal is to recreate the functioning of the human brain using supercomputers.

What does this work have to do with average Joes like us who go to work every day and live regular lives? More than you think, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

According to news reports, more than 150 European scientists penned an open letter to the European Commission (the executive body of the European Union). They are threatening to boycott the HBP project.

The letter bears a series of suggestions for project improvement. They come in the form of seven bullet points. At the top of the list is concern about who is involved (or rather, who isn’t):

“The panel should be composed of highly regarded members of the scientific community whose views reflect the diversity of approaches within neuroscience.”

One bad apple? Or a fruitful start toward greater diversity?
The key word in that initial bullet point is “diversity.” That’s important for a lot of reasons, beyond what’s happening with HBP.

An all too familiar misstep that saps the strength and hamstrings the growth of any community – not just the science realm – is to marginalize the value of diversity in planning. What’s equally bad is to deny diversity in participation. Yet that’s what happens time and again when it comes to leveraging a diversity of professional relationships on the job. It can be similarly so when it comes to tapping into diverse human resources long after we’ve punched out for the day.

The sad truth is that too many of us fail to realize the incredible assets available to us by not maintaining diversity in our personal tool chests. Yes, I’m guilty of it.
             Similarity and difference; it’s the nature of the universe. From falling snowflakes to interplanetary star systems, no two are alike. Yet among each group they share close comparison. The same is true when it comes to human beings.

Don’t think an unsighted person can teach anything to a sighted person? One way might be how to use your other four senses to take richer stock of an environment – even in broad daylight.

What can a poor person teach someone who’s rich? Maybe uncanny resourcefulness to survive, despite not having the privilege of an advanced education, a sufficient bank account or friends in high places.

What's wrong with this person? Absolutely nothing!
What can a gay couple teach a straight one about family systems? Perhaps a number of nontraditional ways coupling can effectively operate and be equally happy – and in many cases more so.

What can a person of color teach someone white? For one, how it feels to be enmeshed in a systematically repressive society (many claim doesn’t even exist) yet still function with grace and compassion with the oppressor.

Each of these examples feature non-dominant or marginalized groups doing the teaching and that was intentional. But the reverse is equally true; learning happens both ways. One “merely” has to reach out and dare to create new relationships. Start with those with whom you highly regard, but make the interaction personal and your motives transparent.
Diversity is about so much more than color
Initial attempts will be uncomfortable. This is normal. Just study history. It was equally the case when the first scientists produced undeniable evidence the Earth wasn’t flat. Then as now, the discomfort will pass. What will be left? New perspectives holding limitless possibilities.

So do yourself a favor: give yourself the gift of difference in your relationships. You’ll be better for it, in more ways than one.

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Meeting Someone can be Wonder(ful), if You Remain Open

Eye Sea U
            When it comes to judging people – or rather, not judging them – folks like me, with full use of our eyesight, are at a distinct disadvantage. At least that’s how I see things.

It seems most of us who can see, tend to do so only with the two orbs in our head. But there’s more to seeing than what our brain receives through eyeballs.

I’ll never forget meeting world famous performer and Grammy Award-winning singer, producer songwriter Stevie Wonder. What happened many years ago during that celebrity encounter was a first big step toward my developing a clearer understanding of myself… and how I see others.

It was at a Hollywood party and I was introduced to Stevie by a mutual friend. After our hellos, he invited me to sit with him. After settling in at the table and meeting the others with him, he extended his hands in my direction and asked me to take them.

His request wasn’t so much startling as it was unexpected. After a beat I did as he asked, figuring it was his unsighted way of initiating a handshake. But his request was more than a greeting. So much more.

Stevie Wonder: he sees beyond sight.
I placed my hands in his and gripped firmly, using the same steady pressure I apply when shaking any person’s hand. Instead of responding in kind, he started talking. It was the normal getting-to-know-you stuff, except for two things: one, Stevie Wonder was asking the questions; two, we were holding hands.

There I was, literally embracing a legend. And a stranger at that. After several minutes of conversation he gently released his hold.

“Why’d you do that?” I asked.

“I like to know who I’m talking to, and it helps me feel their energy.” He went on to add that he gets a wide-ranging sense of a person through this exercise. He was right.

Turns out our eyesight does a most effective job of interrupting our ability to see people for who they really are, rather than who we imagine them to be. This distorted view might be akin to self-fulfilling prophecy: we see what we want to see.

Big or small, sighted people are plagued with the amoral affliction of assessing the ability of a person based on how they look. We have each other to thank for that, and to a large extent, the media.

Tall or short, we ignorantly assess each other based on physical characteristics that are largely unrelated to how a person truly is. Instead, we rely on unhealthy social “conditioning,” which tells us to ignore what we know to be true in favor of what society insists is normal.

Light or dark, we sighted folk pound into each other warped group-think fallacies that the color of our skin holds significant insight into who we are dealing with.

Those with 20:20 vision, or even 20:200 like me, largely consider the so-called physical imperfections of others as somehow qualitative measurements of their character. And most of the time we are wrong, especially when we bump up against our admitted as well as unconscious prejudices. At least I know I am.

So I remain a work in progress, constantly fighting against self-deluding prejudgments of others based on how they look. This “vision sickness,” as I refer to it, robs me of rich and productive opportunities to get to know others. Many of us use this nonsense in place of common sense to mistakenly guide us to consistently wrong conclusions.

Keep all this in mind the next time you have the chance to shake someone’s hand.

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Words to the Wise: Some Phrases are Loaded

Loaded for bear
Recently, I read something that at first felt mildly annoying. On deeper reflection I became downright angry, but not at the person who wrote it. Instead I was irritated at myself over how long it’s taken me to realize (and accept) how damaging it is to see such things in print. Or hear them spoken out loud.

The offensive line was written by some human resources guru. The writer had penned a column on how to maximize your web presence as it relates to online job hunting. Specifically, the article listed simple mistakes that make job candidates look bad when creating an internet profile (i.e., short biography).

It was decent information. The items listed seemed reasonable enough, except for one thing; or rather one word.

What had chapped my hide was embedded in one of the article’s bullet points; it included the word “lame” to describe what not to do.

“Lame” is loaded with meaning, beyond the simple Webster definition of the word. Used in certain ways, it has come to be quite damaging and not for reasons obvious to most nondisabled people. In fact, it can all seem largely invisible or even irrelevant. That is, until you think about it.

Uphill climb
The painful thing about this is that until rather recently I have been guilty of writing/saying the exact same thing as that writer for that online human resources column. The crime? Employing words that describe a situation or thing that inadvertently casts persons with disabilities in a “less than” light.

Using “lame” and certain other words as negative descriptors casts an implied deficit toward people who are disabled. Initially legitimate clinical terms, such words are or have been historically used to by nondisabled people to describe those who are disabled. Over the decades they have been hijacked by mainstream language some of the worst ways.

“That movie was lame.” “How could you have been so blind?” “It’s crippling to think that way.” “You’re insane.”

In each case, there’s nothing positive about what’s being described, insinuated or stated. For those of us who are nondisabled, we live with a privilege that embodies a presumed competence. In other words, we wrongly (and arrogantly) assign a “can’t” to persons who, for instance, use a wheelchair, walker or cane.

As a result, we unwittingly project false negative connotations to physical and mental conditions in which some people live. That’s a travesty. Who are we to define the quality of another person’s life?

For most folks it’s easy to let such harmful references slip past and ignore it. Yet in doing so, that’s one more statement that unconsciously reinforces a form of silent oppression. This toward a group of human beings who have historically been ignored, institutionalized and marginalized and oppressed by elements of nondisabled society.

Just a typical fun-filled day
Hard as it was, I gently pointed out to the writer of that column that the way she used “lame” was inappropriate and why. The next time, I imagine it will be somewhat easier to do. I also am doing the same when hearing these words used inappropriately in my presence.

Equally important, I am monitoring myself, for I have been as guilty as the next nondisabled person in their use. I invite everyone to hold me accountable when I fall short, which I surely will.

It’s only by continuously pointing out the damage these statements cause that we can change our way of thinking about inappropriate word and phrase usage. I am no longer willing to let them go unrecognized for the oppressive messages they are, unintentional or otherwise. Will you do the same?

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at