Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Thinking about the Possibilities

We had another incredible week of experiences at Capabilities. They say you can tell a lot about who you are by looking at the 5 people you spend the most time with. We have a bit of a twist on this and say you can tell a lot about us at Capabilities by the great company we keep and the groups we support. Among the many invitations we respond to, this week we spent time at the annual events sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind. The Colorado Chapter and related local chapters hosted their annual conference in Denver this year. I had the pleasure of representing Capabilities and providing information about products for low vision and blindness. I also had the chance to sit in on a couple of the many great speakers who, by their presence and their accomplishments, provide useful information and inspiration to the attendees.

I was struck in particular with one of the speakers who gave a history of the blindness movement in this country. He and several of the speakers quoted early on the depressing employment statistics, for example, for the blind population. There is a 75% unemployment rate among this group. This says a lot about the enormity of the task ahead in working with employers to raise awareness and funds to transform workplaces into friendly places for people with disabilities of all kinds, especially, it seems, for those who are blind.

His talk harkened back to the early days of help movements, sparked, he said, by the concept of “noblesse oblige,” the idea that those who have must help support those who do not have. While also considered pejorative, the notion of “noblesse oblige” helped fuel what is now the business of so-call “helping organizations,” non-profit groups, church groups, missionary groups and the like, around the world. The speaker highlighted the creation of “asylums” for the blind, institutions born out of an initial spirit of concern and compassion, but transformed through the practice of isolation into prisons where the blind became dependent on the kindness of others, and therefore, more and more removed from society.

This discussion caught my attention because just days before I had heard an intense discussion with a leader from an African nation decrying the African aid efforts of celebrities, like Bono of U2, suggesting that many African nations have become infantilized as a result, unable now to create the kinds of economies developing nations must in order to survive for the long term. It’s a case of “giving them the fish,” he exclaimed, “rather than teaching them how to fish.” The argument was compelling as he cited situation after situation where aid groups “rescue” populations only to leave them to fend for themselves with the same levels of intellectual, political and economic tools as they had previously. The cycle continues. In come the rescuers again. The nation never develops.

The speaker at the NFB event on Friday, however, drew a sharp contrast to the way leaders among the blind have evolved. And he points to the accomplishments of the NFB, to the many organizations that exist today for research, education and promotion of those with blindness. The basis now is self-sufficiency, he explained. Just look at the way businesses are putting together research and practicality to create sophisticated tools that enhance independence. This is where the intersection of purpose and creativity comes. It is a place I respect and spend my days in, as we are ever on the search for the kinds of tools that foster independence, that bring a smile back as someone does again what they have loved to do, but for a while believed was impossible with their blindness or low vision.

As I’ve thought about it more in these past few days, I went back and refreshed my memory on the emergence of the term, “noblesse oblige.” I was first a student of French literature and I recalled that Honoré de Balzac is credited with using this expression first in his Le Lys dans la vallée in 1835. William Faulkner used the term a lot in his novels, contrasting the haves and the have nots, as in The Sound and the Fury, for example. The concept, however, is ancient, even if the expression itself is fairly modern. The expectations of royalty to deliver to the people, to bring succor and respond to real needs, were ever-present to dynasties and monarchies across civilization. Sometimes they sparked events that that created positive change. It was great to hear an analysis last week that was not afraid to recall the positive associations of “noblesse oblige” while highlighting the path that leads away from dependency to a culture of independence.

We are lucky to keep such good company that at once enlightens and stimulates important dialogue and thought, and reinforces our purpose and mission at Capabilities. Many thanks to all who sponsored and spoke at the conference and to the many who attended and spent time speaking with us. We are better for having met you and worked with you.

Please enter the dialogue whenever you would like by posting a comment or thought to the topics we write about. We know that people continue to grow and learn through the interactions with others. Your contribution may be just the catalyst someone else needs to make a change for the better.

1 comment:

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