Disability Justice as a Complex Adaptive System (DJCAS)-4

Part 4: The Clash of Design and Actual Engagement in Advocacy

Although we use the System As Designed (SAD) (irony intended) as a context for our advocacy, anyone who advocates quickly understands that the relationship between SAD and System As Engaged (SAE) is, shall we say, dysfunctional. It is always important to remember that the conflict between SAD and SAE is built into the way we plan and implement all designed systems, not just those that obviously impinge on the lives and possibilities of the disability community.

The experience of reality is different for a person working from outside the SAE than it is for a person working on the inside of the SAE , not unlike the difference between your experience of your self and the experience of another person of your self. Inside the SAE for example, student rights to an FAPE are a set of constraints that are part of a large universe of constraints, including scarce funding and the competition between special education funding and all other financial aspects of the school district, political competition and conflict over everything of value in the district, the impact of personal relationships on decisions, labor agreements, local electoral politics, national views of education as a political football-and so on.

From outside the SAE, The SAD guides the presumption of value for that same universe of meaning I described above. And these two perspectives on that universe of value are very, very different. The biggest upshot of this unavoidable reality is that any conflict over an issue of advocacy has many threads that branch out from the apparent issue into the respective perspectives of the advocate and the district insider. These perspectives are not aligned to one another. They can be made mutually coherent for resolving the advocacy issue by negotiation, but the terms of the negotiation are still very different for the two parties. For the SAE, put somewhat simply, negotiation is about the distribution of resources that the SAE sees as “theirs”, both as “owned” and as demanding allocation for the common good of the SAE, and are a part of a universe of negotiations about those resources extending well beyond the specific advocacy issue or policy. For the advocate, the negotiation is about assuring the allocation of resources sufficient to produce a FAPE and the effective continuation of theĀ  values in the disability educational rights framework.

Engagement between advocate and insider can produce better mutual understanding and make negotiation easier, but it can’t erase the pain points of the differences in perspective. This is generally true wherever SAD and SAE engage, regardless of the system (rehabilitation, healthcare, employment, community living, etc.). It is also true of for-profit corporations. The differences in perspective can be tweaked but not fundementally changed.

As I mentioned earlier, the meta-drivers of the dynamic decisions in any CAS are:

  • The unavoidable uncertainty of the future, and the necessity for hedging against the unpredictable
  • The universal scarcity of resources (not just money, but every kind of resource)

It is the different views of the value of the various resources and the level of risk that is assigned to uncertainties that maintains the conflict between advocate and insider. These constraints operate well beyond the kind of advocacy for disability justice I have discussed so far. I’ll carry along and expand this notion as I discuss more sophisticated and system-like forms of advocacy and social justice change.

Disability Justice as a Complex Adaptive System (DJCAS)-3

Part 3: Engaging the Fuller Reality of the DJCAS

Advocacy (especial advocacy on behalf of individuals or small groups) forces a very distinct realism and depth in any view of the DJCAS as a support system. No knowledge of the DJCAS as imagined or designed can provide this.

At the same time, this deepened perspective is created by specific engagements (analogous to the engagements between parents and child in the clinic model), not by the model of the support system as it was designed.

In fact, the basic model of individual advocacy shows this. The model:

  • The goal of advocacy for an individual is to force the system to operate as it was designed.
  • The fulcrum of transformation to achieve this is to threaten the support system with a forced larger change in its operations if it doesn’t agree to operate as it was designed in this instance.

Individual advocacy incrementally changes the subject system and can benefit an individual or a small group fairly quickly. (The issue of how much permanent change there is in The System is complex. I’ll start to address it later in other posts.)

What is usually called systems advocacy tries to benefit a community of persons impacted by a policy inconsistent with the system as designed. Using organized pressure (political or legal) the focus is altering that policy to insure access to support by a community of persons within the system as it was designed.

Disabled communities also use advocacy to imagine new dimensions in the design of systems of support. These efforts use techniques of legislative advocacy, community organizing, protest, political pressure, and so on, to build new models of how support should be designed. When successful they can change the way support systems are actually implemented.

Finally, disability communities can build alternate systems of support using designs that fit support needs of our community better than the larger social institutions of The System. Getting good at these kinds of advocacy should be a part of every disabled community’s efforts to build real support for its members. Such advocacy skills are more easily generalized through intersectional community organizing, as well, supporting real collaboration across marginalized communities.

At the end of the day, though, The System will, as part of its normal dynamic, operate to devalue and institutionalize (incarcerate in one way or another) all marginalized communities. Advocacy experience is a vital tool for fighting these mechanisms of oppression.

But there is another dimension to DJCAS that requires a deeper take on how The System operates. Getting at this dimension requires a more nuanced exploration of the difference between the System As Designed and the System As Engaged through our advocacy.