“In 1990 I was invited to give a paper on disability research to a conference of academic researchers in Sweden and this gave me the opportunity to reflect on the issues involved. To this day I remember entering the conference room on the first morning with the other researchers, none of whom were disabled, and finding the words ‘what do you think you are doing talking about us in this way?’ written on the board. No-one except me thought it referred to us; those who even noticed the comment at all simply assumed the board hadn’t been cleaned by whoever had used it the day before.
What did we think we were doing: pursuing knowledge for the benefit of humankind? Informing policy and practice? Helping disabled people? Building networks? Developing our own careers? Having a freebie at someone else’s expense? All of those things probably and more; but also much less.”(Oliver 1997:15)
This was a class assignment in the research module of the Masters in Social Policy I am taking. The question asked the learners to describe the role of the researcher in emancipatory research. I have decided to publish this because I feel it has huge implications for society and I found the above excerpt very interesting and thought provoking. I wrote a much more academic article for marking but this is another personal evaluation of the topic and not at all subject to academic grading. It is my personal view.
After reading the above excerpt I thought what a good observation. So often society assumes that we are doing things for the benefit of others when in actual fact we have not consulted the “other” about whether that is what they actually need. We spend thousands, and for those big foundations, millions of money on conferences and projects for different groups of society that we think are in need. The statement also implies the presence of “us” and “them” which already signifies the divisive nature of society.
Is true emancipation of oppressed groups a realistic goal or an impossible dream? How do you seek to empower someone unless you have consulted with them and together concluded that they are indeed seeking what you as a “helper” seek for them? How many times do policy makers and “concerned” citizens do things “for” and not “with” the people they seek to assist? Who is really benefiting from our well meaning acts? Where is the voice of the marginalized in the policies we are making? Where are our motivations coming from? Because it is not enough to congregate and discuss what we think are the solutions to the world’s problems without proper consultation with those affected. We might actually do more harm than good because what we perceive may be so far from the truth.
Do not begin to assume you know the full extent of someone’s problem if you have never walked a mile in their shoes. There is more to the personal experience than can be described. Assuming that we know people’s needs or what is right for them is downright patronizing. The question above has surely given me cause to pose before I think a certain intervention is what my client needs without hearing from them how they propose to solve the quandary they may find themselves in. This is a basic core of social work “helping individuals to help themselves”. First year of college basics.
I just wonder if anyone actually found an answer to that question “What do you think you are doing talking about us in this way”? What would you even say? Um.. we thought that these bulleted points on our written strategy that we have been working on for weeks/months/years are just what you need to solve the problem of disability/poverty/…any perceived lack of something. Most of the findings are actually based on research but I stand by my view that nothing beats the subjective experience.
I fully understand the extent of hopelessness that marginalized groups may feel. Who marginalizes them? Who emancipates them? Emancipation in most cases is a very expensive commodity. How do you emancipate yourself with no resources or income to do so? So the “haves”make it their mandate to provide what they think is needed but there must be another way to do it without making the “have nots” feel further disadvantaged and offended. Our terminology alone is discriminatory, socially constructed to create “otherness”. Disability/poverty/lack…are all man-made terms. We are all human and we are all capable until someone tells us we are not!!!
It’s worth a thought…