Future Strategy: The Struggle for Disability Rights in an Era of Decline and Constraint

A large number of ADAPT members discussing strategy for their Action in Washington, D.C.
ADAPT Members Preparing for Active Resistance

I believe that the core of life is the creation and sharing of meaning. It is easy to forget this core when things are going along smoothly and we can ignore most of what passes before us without any great risk.

That time is past.

We live in a period of intense volatility, and we not only lack tools for dealing with such rapid and unpredictable change, we carry with us a set of assumptions about how our society works that might have been useful as rules-of-thumb in the past, but are no longer so.

In fact, these assumptions drive us to make poor choices, triggering changes and consequences we can’t predict, and forcing more poor choices on us.

The only way to manage this astounding level of uncertainty is to craft a strategy that will provide us with a framework for making difficult and tentative decisions over and over.

Nowhere is this change in how we make choices more important than in the disability community.

As all of you are aware, our struggles to build access, inclusion, and choice into our society have stalled and retreated at the Federal level because of the actions of the current administration. But, our progress has always been incremental and hard-fought, requiring persistence and a relentless commitment to our values over decades.

Now, while persistence and relentless commitment will still be very important, there are many forces that will actively work to undermine and destroy the progress we have made.

I want to talk to you about our struggle for rights in the larger context of long-term changes in our society that are now and will be constricting our community’s social and political capacity to innovate and expand freedom and choice for ourselves. The legislative and regulatory frameworks we have used for progress in past decades are currently eroding, and it isn’t clear that we can stop that erosion, much less reverse it.

In addition, there are large social forces that will make those legislative and regulatory frameworks less effective even as we succeed in defending them against attack.

In the future, it will not be enough for us to demand our rights. We will also have to create the social frameworks within which our rights will have real meaning and through which we can live fulfilling lives of choice.

We will not be able to depend on others for the success of these efforts.

Overview Over: On To the Feature Presentation!

Big Screens of young man showing his software in a Serbian competition.
On To the Deep Framework

I’ve made my last post in the FutureStrategy Overview. Obviously, the posts from the Overview will remain available for review if the going gets tough with the deep framework posts coming next.

The full presentation of the deep framework is 56 slides long and each slide is packed with notes, resource links, quotes and what have you. I’ll be reformating the slides so they work better in a blog post. If you have questions, you can put them into the comments and I’ll answer them.

Although I would be happy to do presentations on the ideas in this deep framework, the reality is that it is a long slog as a whole, and I divided it into a number of parts, each being a presentation in itself and running about two hours per part.

I hope some of what follows will prove useful to you and our community in the years ahead.

What Do We Do Next?

Sign on a computer that says, This machine is a Server! Do Not Power Down!
Don’t Turn Off the Server!

Some ways to think about how we might create useful change:

  • Within the Shell of the Old: We don’t have the option of either taking over control of the levers of society or starting from scratch to assure our survival as a community. The disability community’s dependence on the health care system and our sensitivity to small changes in our ability to access our community mean that whatever we do, we will need stability in supports every second of every day for the near term. We must build what we need within the current system of supports.
  • Getting Good at Change: We can get good at change by practicing change in small ways as an ongoing part of our self-support and advocacy. Often, it is so tiresome to simply get through the day, that we default to dependence on systems of support even though we know those systems can and will change without notice. This habit means, though, that we will not be able to respond to the truly unpredictable because we will have no experience of creating successful change on the fly. This means that we must build our general ability to accept and act on the necessity of change long before all hell breaks loose.
  • The Commanding Beliefs of the American People: These beliefs were a part of the assumptions that Americans made about what change could mean. In many ways, we no longer believe them, and the erosion of these assumptions increases a little every day:
    • Everything is Possible.
    • Vast problems can be solved if broken up into pieces and addressed one by one.
    • Ordinary men and women contain within themselves, individually and collectively, the constructive genius with which to craft such solutions.
  • Personalism: For at least the last 7,000 years, we have lived with the good and the bad of the institution of states that control the creation and distribution of those resources we need to live. Over the millennia, there has been an ongoing battle at every level of society between the value of each person in themselves and the use of each person by the elites in the various states.

    Personalism is the philosophy (sometimes religious, sometimes not) that society should support the freedom and choice of each individual to craft their unique lives. We don’t actually need a philosophy or ideology of personalism (in fact, I think that would be a repetition of the errors mentioned earlier), but we do need to internalize in ourselves and build into the future we create, the values that the disability community has discovered to be the basis for freedom and choice. This model is the idea of using accommodation to each of our individual characteristics to expand the possibilities of our futures.

We Need A Strategy!

What is a Strategy? It is hard to show your skill as a sailor when there is no wind. ― Richard P. Rumelt
We Need a Strategy!

Our community’s struggle in regard to the larger society is very much like the situation described in the quote. Constant efforts at resistance, while necessary, and unavoidable, will not resolve those large forces that are gradually degrading the foundation of our current forms of personal and community support.

We need more than a set of advocacy and resistance techniques, and we need much more than any savior or ideology that might exist in the larger complex system could offer.

Our usual approach to big-picture barriers is an operational plan, with tasks and measurable outcomes. But an operational plan is not nearly enough. An operational plan simplifies and reduces potential outcomes by its very nature, and ignores available resources in the pursuit of apparent predictability.

We need an approach that actually fits our community, that values our freedom and choice in support of the unique dreams of each of us.

We need a Strategy.

A strategy is a way to organize our change efforts around two unavoidable realities:

  • The unpredictability of the future.
  • The relentless scarcity of resources (in all the forms those resources might take).

Aligning our change efforts means that we match all our available resources to all of the outcomes we dream of achieving and is called a Grand Strategy.

The Fundamental Force of Decline

Gray rock with a complete fossil of an ancient small crocodile-like reptile
Why Do We Keep Making the Same Mistakes?

There is a deep similarity between the way we have used fossil fuels and debt to drive our political and financial economies. And the results of this use are also very similar:

  • There are unavoidable limits to both. These limits are not just an amount (quantity in fuels and bubble size in debt), but that both become increasingly difficult to extract as their use increases.
  • The habit of their use also makes it increasingly difficult to change their use. This is a kind of addiction.
  • Their use is always to allow short-term success and a parallel ignoring of long-term consequences.
  • When the consequences become too great to ignore, very significant costs are required to alleviate these consequences.
  • In turn, the costs of dealing with the consequences of short-term, non-strategic use further undermines the original advantage of their use.

This cycle of short-term planning in use of resources and the lack of attention to consequences is fractal. That is, the mistake occurs systemically at every level. It is a characteristic of our complex adaptive system, and it has as much to do with the momentum of our ongoing lost control over our future as anything else that we currently believe to be wrong in our society.

We can’t use the way we created and maintain the degradation of our society to change that degradation in anything other than small ways, ways that over time will wash out in the same way that ripples from the splash of a small stone wash out in a river.

We need a strategy, not more short-term operational planning.

How Complex Systems Age

elderly couple dancing in vaguely European Clothing
Everything Gets Old in the Same Way

How do Complex Systems Age?

Think of how a forest grows after a fire removes the previous forest. The cycle has 4 phases:

  • Fast Reorganization (Pioneer Exploration-First Weeds)
  • Fast Exploitation (Entrepreneurial Expansion-Most Successful Weeds)
  • Slow Conservation (The Evolving Ecosystem-The Forest Developing).
  • Slow Degradation Followed by Fast Release (Collapse due to brittleness, the end result of ever-increasing complexity).

This final phase of collapse creates the circumstances for the next complex system, whatever that collapse might specifically be.

These cycles are not entirely predictable. But the larger phases can be recognized if not foretold by simple observation. At least if you are looking for them.

Some Problems of an Aging Complex System

As complex systems age, they produce other problems for a community like ours:

  • A General Corruption of individuals, and more importantly, corruption of the original purpose of the complex support system.
  • A Civil War between the original purpose and maintaining the system.
  • Functional Psychopathy which values human beings less and less over time as a direct result of the aging of the complex system.
  • A kind of Compounding Error as poorly made fixes create unintended consequences, which become new problems.

The fact that all complex systems age doesn’t mean that we can’t improve parts of the system. If I have arthritis in my hip and it gets bad enough, my pain and reduced mobility may seriously interfere with my normal activity. Perhaps I choose to have hip replacement surgery. If the surgery is successful, my ability to engage in my activities can be dramatically improved.

But, I’m still aging.

The same is true for all complex systems.

Symptoms of Decline: Political

Pie Chart of Political Affiliations from 2014; Independnts 45%; Democrats 29%; Repbulicans 23%;No Response 3%.
Pie Chart of Recent Political Affiliations
  • All public communications are inaccurate: Doesn’t matter from who or why. No communication can be trusted on its face. In many cases, our choices are either to simply believe something from those we perceive to be in our community or spend time we don’t have researching the truth.
  • All political systems are corrupt: Not all individuals, just systems. Corrupt systems use corrupt practice to sustain corruption until collapse. Corruption is never eliminated by criminal proceedings, does not reduce until collapse, and impacts all the transactions of the system even when most of the system isn’t engaged in the corruption.
  • The legal system is too complex to be generally effective: The only way the legal system will simplify is a collapse. It is nearly impossible to eliminate laws without making the legal system even more complex.  In the mainstream of legal practice, lawyers know more and more about less and less as every dimension of law increases in complexity and the corpus of the law “requires” more and more of all of us.

    I don’t know how to demonstrate this, but my impression is that in any instance of legal use, more and more of the extant law is simply ignored.

    A great example is the way plea bargaining has taken over the criminal justice system and its necessity has extended and made the corruption of the justice system more complex and more difficult to reduce.

  • All saviors aren’t: Goes without saying? Desperate people always make the same strategic mistakes. As life becomes more out of control, as our society=complex-system becomes more brittle, there are no longer obvious solutions to chronic problems, and we retreat to those beliefs that let us feel better or express our fear well.

Symptoms of Decline: Economic

daylight photo of the Roman Colosseum ruins
The Roman Colosseum

Our society has some large-scale demographic, financial, environmental, and social forces that can’t be eliminated or even dramatically reduced. These forces will have a profound impact on our ability to pursue our disability community’s rights and freedom agenda.

These include (only as examples. There are many others.):

  • Debt-Fueled Growth: We have been using debt to fuel growth nationally since the Great Depression. But when debt is an order of magnitude bigger than wealth, how do we pay it off? Mostly through economic crashes, whether small or large.
  • The Aging of America’s Taxpayers: We are all getting older, which means our incomes will drop and we will pay fewer tax revenues overall. And we seem hell-bent on stopping any new young people from expanding our economy and making up for that loss.
  • The Missing $20 trillion: The 1% have been squirreling away wealth for decades. The recent Federal Tax law is only the latest example of supporting that loss of wealth. And, there is no politically practical way to get that wealth back.

    Incidentally, American sovereign (government) debt has also reached $20 trillion and is now equal to the USA Gross  Domestic Product ($20 trillion). I guess we could call this the triple $20 trillion threat;

  • Relentlessly Increasing Complexity: Every second of every day our society is getting more complex. Every effort we make to fix the broken parts results in greater complexity. Every local improvement we make in the system makes some other part of the system more complex.

    The increasing complexity makes our society more brittle, and less able to respond to the unpredictable disturbances of our common future. And, the only way we have traditionally simplified the system is through some kind of collapse, big or small.

Framework for Future Strategy

Quote fromCeaser Chavez: Help us love even those who hate us; so we can change the world
How Should We Approach the Building of Our Strategy?
  • Symptoms of Decline: What are some of the more obvious ways in which our society is failing to support our freedom and choice? Some things are going better, and some are getting worse. There are large-scale forces that are degrading our society and economy and they aren’t the current failure of thought that passes for our politics.
  • The Aging of Complex Adaptive Systems: All complex systems (including us as individuals) age in more or less the same way. What are the signs of that aging? Once you give up the idea that our society is a machine that can be fixed by replacing parts, it is much easier to see how similar aging is in all complex systems.
  • What Is a Strategy?: If just fixing current problems in the short run won’t help us in the long run, we will need a community strategy to defend ourselves and build something more sustainable. What might such a strategy look like? Whatever that strategy might be, it has to live with the realities that t\our future is unpredictable and there isn’t enough to go around.
  • What Do We Do Next?: Where do we start in addressing the long-term abandonment of our community by the larger society?

Basic Assumptions of Future Strategy

color images of lader and helix DNA
How Can We Think About Our Common Future?

1. Our society is not a machine: 
If I were to ask most people if they thought their pet dog or cat was a machine, they would likely say “no”. Most people get that the larger world does not consist of a bunch of machines. But….we continue to try to solve problems by using models that are based on machines.

2. Change (i.e., Evolution) is not about creating perfection.
Mostly, we think about evolution as though it is trying to create the perfect organism. But evolution doesn’t care about our social values. Evolution is about continuing to evolve, and the key to that is creating variation. As much variation as possible.  This is important because we tend to use whatever model of evolution we have internalized as our default model of how we change complex systems.

3. We can’t predict the future well.
It is dawning on most of us that the world seems less predictable than it has in the past. Every day brings events that are surprising. In trying to gain a foothold on this ever-changing reality, we bundle the surprises and give them some abstract name, like terrorism or disease or natural disaster. But there are many flaws in trying to bunch very different things under a single term. The most important flaw is that we try to fix them using the same response for all of them.

4. We must actively steward all resources. We never have enough.
We are beginning to become used to the idea that something (a constantly changing something) will always be in short supply. We just don’t know what it will be until it is in short supply. For example, there was a shortage of IV bags because the most important source of them was a factory in Puerto Rico and the factory stopped producing because of Hurricane Maria and our failure to respond to the devastation in a timely way. There are now chronic and ever-changing shortages of medical treatments and supports of all kinds. And shortages aren’t restricted to healthcare.

5. Driven behavior always misreads risk and uncertainty.
Risk and uncertainty are not the same. Risk applies to closed systems like gambling games. Uncertainty means that we not only don’t know, but we can’t estimate risk. Adolescent males reliably do very dangerous and stupid things that violate common sense. All driven behavior, whether toward or away from something, reliably produces errors in assessing risk and uncertainty and severe underestimation or overestimation of risk. The Fukushima nuclear disaster is a great example of confusing risk and uncertainty.

6. Ideologies will not save us, only hard creative work.
An ideology is nothing but a complicated set of assumptions that has the same flaws in the complex, rapidly changing, and unpredictable world we now all inhabit as all the mistakes in thinking I have described earlier. All belief systems are like membership cards for participation in some human community, with the accuracy or consistency of the beliefs being a low priority concern. Belief serves social but not predictive purposes.

7. Skin in the game is more important than expertise.
We have been trained to simply accept the decisions and opinions of experts all of our lives. On the other hand, people with disabilities have commonly learned that expertise does not assure respect for our lives and our choices. The larger the system, the higher the decision level, and the more distant from you, the more that decision or opinion reflects their interests, not yours.