The Hidden Power of Disability.
My Love Letters to Pearl Diving. Part 4.
I will be honest. Before I joined Ashoka and met some of our incredible Social Entrepreneurs working with disabled people, I never thought much about disability. Back then, it seemed a distant and unknown, slightly unsettling territory. In my work as a politician I understood the importance of ensuring accessibility and creating equal opportunities- it was the right thing to do, but it was also very theoretical.
That was until I understood the power of disability.
My first aha moment was in a class of my MBA program. Our professor had given us an assignment to read a Harvard Business Review case study about a company called “Specialisterne”. It had been founded by a man called Thorkil Sonne. His son Lars had been diagnosed with autism as a young child, he had a hard time understanding emotions and communicating with strangers and he loved routine and hated change. Thorkil and his wife quickly understood that statistically this meant he was on a trajectory to have a hard time in school and remain unemployed all his life, after all social-emotional competencies and flexibility are the competencies every job advertisement asked for.
Yet, Thorkil saw things in Lars that amazed him. He had a superior sense for details, identifying patterns, understanding logical models.
Thorkil understood that if he were able to change the way employers recruit, he could create jobs for people with autism that would build on their unique strengths and not disqualify them for their weaknesses. Thorkil founded “Specialisterne” with the goal to create 1 million jobs for people with autism around the world. He has since changed the mindsets of hundreds of companies that now take advantage of the unique strengths of people with autism for their own gain. And, Thorkil´s work also changed my personal trajectory – when I found out he was an Ashoka Fellow, I decided that that Ashoka was the organization I wanted to work with. (Full disclosure: I also spent some of my energy on bringing Thorkil`s work to Austria and am a member of the founding board of his Austrian organization).
My next moment came with an invitation to speak at a conference on tearing down barriers for people with disabilities. It was hosted by Walburga Fröhlich and Klaus Candussi, who have since become Ashoka Fellows too. The two are co-founders of ATEMPO, an organization that – among other things – trains people with learning disabilities (what we in former times called “mental disabilities”). They create jobs for them as experts that validate the translations of complex texts into easy to read and understand language. In her invite Walburga told me that at their conference which would be attended by many of their colleagues with learning disabilities, they would hand out red cards to signal to the speaker that he or she was hard to understand. I was slightly panicked. I was supposed to speak about Ashoka, the concept of Social Entrepreneurship, innovation and changing the world. How on earth was I supposed to do that without using many foreign sounding words and long sentences to explain definitions of entrepreneurship?
The preparation for this talk become one of the most instructive and insightful tasks. I spend hours working through all the complex concepts I was going to talk about, breaking them down into short, easy to digest ideas and training myself to use as little foreign words as possible.
It worked. No red cards were used in my talk. My hard work had paid off. And more importantly, I understood the power of disability as a force for change in our society.
Walburga and Klaus` conference changed my style of presentation. Since that day, I try to speak slowly, use short sentences, avoid foreign words and break down complex ideas into easier to grasp, smaller bits. For our last fellow presentation evening the Austrian team deliberately chose to use only easy to read language throughout the entire event. Afterwards we heard from many people with and without disabilities how much they had enjoyed the evening – finally an event where they understood everything and could follow easily.
More than 40 percent of all Austrian adults have a hard time reading and writing. This excludes them from public dialogue and life. No wonder they are prone to populism. After all that´s a political style that is easy to understand, while society at large hardly makes efforts to explain and simplify and tear down the barriers of language and complexity.
I learned more from people with learning disabilities at that conference than I could ever give back.
So, what if these two examples of cherishing talent and taking advantage of the opportunities different abilities provide for innovation, were the norm in our societies? We would have more accessible, open societies, we would take advantage of all the different talents out there and we would live much fuller lives…