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I am convinced that everything good in this world exists in the mind.

If I could sum up the goal that isn’t on the list of the Great Exchange’s official goals, it’s to train people to bump up against the quirks that exist in the brain and forgive them. The more extreme cognitive differences are the easiest to notice and accept, and once you pull back from there, the subtle differences between all of us are easier to accept too. My sister, for example, does some frustrating things because her impulse control isn’t wired like the rest of ours. And by that, I mean I’m not entirely sure if it’s there. Literally. It could have been tied to the part of her brain that was removed.

One of her classmates is overtly blunt and comes across as quirky and rude. That’s because he’s Autistic and his brain’s rubric for social interaction isn’t the same as that of a non-Autistic person’s. Another classmate can’t contain himself when he gets excited. He’ll scream and shout and bang on the chairs. It’s perfectly natural, but the rest of us react to situations more quietly. We may be in the majority, but at the end of the day the rules that govern the “right” behaviors and interactions are pretty arbitrary.

Do you see where I’m going with this? If you can boil a behavioral, social, or intellectual difference down to something like brain wiring, then you are less quick to judge. There’s more than the brain, of course – the way people were raised, the experiences that line their faces, the mantras they’ve been repeating to themselves – but once you’re trained to start looking, you can build from there. The ultimate goal is that no matter who you interact with, friend or  coworker or stranger, you’ll be able to say, “The way in which your brain allows you to look at the world is fundamentally different from the way mine does, and that’s okay.”

Most of us aren’t there – I certainly am not – but at least I’ve had the privilege of growing up with someone who could teach me to start looking. I think she could teach a lot of other people to start looking, too, if only she had the chance to meet them. She’s my brain sage.

This was supposed to be a post about something I read in a Muhammad Yunus article, but I’ m really tired; and when I’m tired, I default to the mind. I find it incredibly soothing, like a bedtime story or a prayer.


Study: Many Adults With Disabilities Do Nothing All Day

Yesterday I discovered an unsettling but not unsurprising study about adults with disabilities. A survey of about 800 siblings of adults with disabilities reveals that about 13% of disabled adults have nothing to do with their time–no job, no educational activity, and no form of recreation.

Now, numbers can be misleading and our brains are trained to interpret data in a certain way. So if your first reaction to this information was to say, “13%? That’s not so bad!” then I don’t fault you. To be honest, that was my first impulse too.

However, 13% of 800 is 104 people. That’s a significant number. If the percentage holds true across the board (and it probably doesn’t–given the demographic of the siblings surveyed, the percentage is most likely a lot higher), then here’s the breakdown:

  • There are 6.2 to 7.5 million people with cognitive disabilities in the United States, so:
  • There are 800,600 to 975,000 disabled adults just sitting around all day, unenriched, unfulfilled, and most likely quite depressed.

Again, I’d wager to guess that the numbers are even more dire than these findings reveal. The siblings who were surveyed were wealthier and more educated than the general population as a whole, meaning they’re more likely to have the means to find outlets for their disabled loved ones.

But even having the means won’t do a damn thing if the outlets don’t exist in the first place. My parents are pitch-perfect examples of people who provide their disabled daughter with a happy, fulfilling life–but even they worry about what Martha is going to do with her time when she graduates from the Transition House (part of her local special education program–instead of going to school all day, she goes to a house for disabled students up to the age of 21 that teaches basic life skills). Although Martha is happy and social and would be a wonderful asset to any organization, her cognitive abilities are such that even Goodwill can’t offer her a job. Finding recreational, social, and educational opportunities for disabled adults is a full-time job (usually falling to parents or other family members) that takes tenacity and creativity.

I see this as a fundamental human rights issue. The Declaration of Independence’s “right to the pursuit of happiness” is one of the most influential phrases in U.S. history. Anyone who has ever felt isolated or bored can tell you that an absence of meaning and purpose is one of the most horrible, defeating, and depressing feelings in the world. But our society is simply not set up in a way that allows many disabled adults to pursue happiness.

There is a disabled man who sits in front of my apartment complex’s mailboxes all day, every day. He is always there unless it’s too hot or too cold, at which point I imagine he sits in his apartment. You’d be amazed at the degree to which he lights up every time I’m out walking my dog; I always say hi to him and ask if he wants to pet the dog. I’ve never seen anyone else in my apartment complex speak to him.

Widespread change is going to take a lot of effort; in the meantime, if you pass a person like that man every day, just have a conversation with him. It could be the most stimulating thing he does all day.

A Healthy Family

The Huffington Post’s article about abuse towards disabled adults hit me hard in the stomach. Before citing some absolutely appalling stories and details, the article reports that disabled adults are at a much higher risk of being physically and sexually abused than non-disabled adults.

This hurts. It hurts every single one of us. Our health as a family, a society, and a planet is directly tied  to the way we treat our vulnerable or misunderstood community members. If a person is fragile physically, mentally or socially, the healthiest possible human grouping will take the best possible care of them. The weakest possible human grouping will take advantage of them. If someone mistreats a disabled person, it’s not just a problem; it’s a symptom of societal disease.

I truly believe that speaking to a person with a social or cognitive disability, then becoming their friend, then learning to love them as a contributing member of society will impact so much more than the rights of the disabled. Once your brain is open to compassionate understanding, it will affect the way you treat everyone else in your network, disabled or not. A person with a disability is one of the best possible candidates for instilling this sense of compassion.

The tenet that increased interaction with cognitively disabled people will lead to greater societal compassion is one of the more idealistic or “visionary” philosophies behind The Great Exchange (as opposed to “practical”), but it runs deep. It will be a long time before something like that can be measured. But there it is, tucked away, driving the more practical in’s and out’s. I guess I just take this one on faith.