I recently participated in a workshop about organizational development. Everything about the learning environment seemed perfect: the class was small, the agenda looked interesting, and the presenter was engaging. I was ready to learn.
We were asked to purchase two books for the course. One was titled, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, by Peter M. Senge. At a glance, it seemed informative.
But remember what your grandpa always taught you: Don’t judge a book by its cover.
This particular book’s second chapter was titled: “Does Your Organization Have A Learning Disability?” The words made me cringe. Still, I was a little intrigued. How would this chapter play out? How was the author going to link learning disabilities to the state of an organization? I decided to read on.
Learning disabilities are tragic in children, especially when they go undetected. They are no less tragic in organizations, where they also go largely undetected. The first step in curing them is to begin to identify the seven learning disabilities.
My hopefulness was shot. The book’s relation between an organization and a learning disability had nothing to do with finding new ways to make businesses work more efficiently. It had nothing to do with adapting workplace strategies—instead, it merely embraced a disparaging view of disability.
The book continually referred to errors and wrong-doings and detriments in an organization: the “learning disabilities” of a business. And though much of the book’s content may have been useful, innovative and thought-provoking, the fact that derogatory references were made about our community tainted my perception of the author’s methodologies. Senge had demonstrated a lack of respect—a lack of awareness of disability and disability culture—through his choice to assume negative value of people with learning disabilities.
As might have been expected, my workshop assignment was to write a paper addressing topics covered in the course. But I could not bring myself to use a reference like organizational “learning disabilities.” Instead, I included the following footnote in my report:
As a disability rights activist, I advocate on a daily basis for the reference of disability not to be used in the context selected by Peter M. Senge. He specifically notes, for example, that: “Learning disabilities are tragic in children. They are no less tragic in organizations. The first step in curing them is to begin to identify the seven learning disabilities.” These “seven learning disabilities” are obviously labeled as such because they are seen as significant infringements on the productivity of an organization. However, linking a lack of productivity or a professional error to the term “disability” in a demoralizing fashion such as this is something that I cannot support, based on my personal moral code and professional obligation. Therefore, Senge’s seven “learning disabilities” will be referred to in this review as “methods of error.” For reference to, and justification for, this standing, please refer to Respectful Disability Language, www.nyln.org/Clearinghouse/Documents/Language%20Doc.pdf.
Though I had simply included this footnote in my paper for my own moral well-being, I found that something amazing happened as a result of my decision. After exchanging essays with a classmate for proofreading, I found the following footnote in my classmate’s work:
After a conversation with our colleague Betsy Valnes, and after examination of her organization’s esteemed work, I feel strongly that Peter M. Senge’s use of the term “learning disability” to describe organizational weakness is inappropriate and harmful and, as such, I will refrain from using it in this paper. In its stead I will use the term “methods of error,” for which I would like to credit Betsy Valnes.
I had not expected this. I had not expected others to get on board with the choice I had made. I had merely included the notation in my paper to ease my own conscience—and yet, somehow, one little footnote had promoted a stand to be taken by a fellow professional, someone who had embraced the importance of universal respect, even though she doesn’t work directly in or with the disability movement. My classmate had written those words simply because she knew them to be right. She had stood beside me and, as an ally, she had embraced a piece of disability culture and had provided evidence that the roles of allies in our movement are essential.
I decided to write the author and publisher of The Fifth Discipline, sharing my frustrations and noting what a pity it was that such a useful book had made such an offensive comparison. I noted that such decisions can alienate an entire class of readership. I also included a copy of the Disability Respectability Language document and asked for consideration to be demonstrated in future publications of Senge’s book. Will it happen? Who knows. Will the writer or publisher have one of those wonderful “Ah-ha” moments, recognizing the error of his decision to publish something repulsive?
I hope so. Because these instances of prejudice are unfortunately not uncommon. Numerous skilled professionals and public experts know little to nothing about disability culture and disability pride. They remain foolish, uninformed and unchallenged, using disparaging language about disability without a second thought.
We as a community still have a lot of work to do. We must strengthen the unity of our disability family, embracing our allies who may not themselves have disabilities, but who still stand beside us in what we aim to achieve. We must maintain a sharp awareness of how we are perceived around the world and always remember that bringing us all together is what creates “the real reality.” Today’s reality only confirms that our work is far from over.
by Betsy Valnes
Betsy Valnes is an active member of the disability movement in the US and abroad. She serves as executive director of the National Youth Leadership Network, a non-profit organization run by and for young people with disabilities. An adaptation of this article was published in the fall newsletter of the National Youth Leadership Network.