The Basic Pattern of Disability Rights Advocacy

There are as many ways to advocate for rights as there are systems, contexts that are oppressive, and creative advocates to invent disruptive engagement with those oppressors. Understanding advocacy as a tactical and operational tool of social justice transformation requires experience and practical knowledge of the concrete realities of the System Of Focus (SOF). To use advocacy to extend the impact of social justice transformation, we need to also extend our understanding of advocacy as a scaffold for making our Strategy facilitate that transformation.

Virtually all approaches to first order advocacy follow this abstract script:

  • Disrupt the ordinary way of business of the System of Focus (SOF) by challenging some part of its typical behavior or some relationship it has with the outside world.
  • Threaten to cause a bigger and less controlled change in the SOF if the advocacy demands aren’t met.
  • The SOF chooses to make a smaller adaptation to avoid a bigger, uncontrolled one.

Active advocacy is (thus) a negotiation process, no matter how the process proceeds. But, while advocates are focused on an individual or community outcome, the SOF is focused on the externally forced (re)distribution of resources that they believe they have the right to control as they wish.

This standard pattern of rights advocacy is reimagining the distribution of the tools of life-it is a political struggle. This is as true of a struggle over an Individual Education Program, as it is over a presidential campaign.

But, as an advocate, it is important to remember that this pattern is not just a negotiation over the distribution of resources. That might be true for the SOF, but it isn’t for the person or community whose life possibilities could be expanded by successful advocacy. Buying in to the SOF view of the purpose in the negotiation, is a slippery slope toward the financialization and politicization of advocacy as a social justice tool. It turns social justice advocacy into a  zombie.

Before going into the more sophisticated advocacy patterns available to disability advocates in our 21st century future, it is important to ground ourselves more deeply in the underlying dynamic reality of First Order Advocacy (FOA).

Next Post: What the SOF Is and How We Engage It

Expanding Disability Rights Through Advocacy

In the last half-century, the disability community has gone from a fragmented, cure-focused, disconnected aggregation of individuals isolated in their families or in institutions to an identity-aware, active, present, and organized advocacy movement.

The kind of advocacy that led to this blossoming of our community can be thought of as driven by the same model that black civil rights, feminism, and other identity-based rights movements have used:

    • The passage of legislation that mandates certain rights.
    • The development of procedures to define rights and due process when those rights are violated.
    • The use of legislative solutions to the trade-offs and detailed reification of those rights.

Essentially, rights, in this model, are only those which can be legislated and bureaucratized. This process of rights expansion is driven by presence, protest, policy proposals.

The successes of our common effort are real, but not complete. Both the larger world and the requirements of future success with advocacy have changed and will continue to change. The ongoing resistance to our advocacy over the last half-century has gradually muted our impact. We must face up to these realities if we expect to further our project of social justice and personal empowerment.

The core of a new approach to advocacy for our community requires an understanding of the advocacy environment as a Complex Adaptive System (CAS) , and not as a machine that we change as we would a car engine.
Seeing the constraints on our community as processes in a CAS is not a new technique of advocacy, though it does offer us a new way to view how we change The System.

There is a basic pattern that we have used to pursue rights, and in my next post, I’ll go over that pattern as a prelude to a version for advocacy in a complex adaptive system.

(P8): The System as Tool

An absurdly complex swiss army knife with scores of tools.
Swiss Army Godzilla

We mostly view government (The System) as a repository of solutions to problems we can’t solve ourselves. I don’t know if this was ever true, but it certainly isn’t true now, especially in the lives of our community of people with disabilities. The capacity of government to take responsibility for solving any problem is undermined by pressure to reduce expenditures, frank corruption, incompetence, and a virtually universal refusal to ever take responsibility for anything that goes wrong. This “Not Me” attitude occurs both in disaster, and more recently, as a general marketing framework. “Don’t expect much from us”. Government’s response is randomly useful and randomly destructive,.

So, when we act as though the government has as its purpose the solving of our life problems, and we suffer disappointment when it doesn’t, we are perpetuating a species of victimhood for ourselves from which we can’t exit. We can only feel more deeply victimized and helpless.

We need to stop looking at The System as a Solution to our problems in living as people with disabilities. It will never be that. At the same time, there is an enormous amount of resources tied up (embedded) in The System, even if an ever-increasing amount of those resources are used in monitoring, administration, and political purposes that have nothing to do with support. The mission of support, the supposed purpose, gradually becomes more and more to deny support, investing in administrative complexity to make support increasingly difficult to access. Everything about The System is double-edged, and we can’t ever be sure what edge we will get when we try to use it the way it is supposed to work.

While we can’t depend on The System, we can’t simply ignore it either. We must make use of The System or forgo the resources. Frankly, we currently have no way of taking the resources in The System and making them directly available, nor are we likely to anytime soon.

As we think they were intended.

To deal with this reality, we must adopt a dual approach that will seem unnatural:

  • We must get better at extracting support from The System as it is, not as we wish it would be. This will require us to be far more strategic in our interactions with the System, and we will have to understand that The System will continue to deteriorate even as our advocacy creates some local real improvements in how it works. Local improvement, but System-wide slow breakdown is the trend for the foreseeable future.
  • In addition to extracting support from The System, we will need to disassociate resources from The System that we can use for building an alternative that I have called Our System. For example, we might advocate to move resources from parts of The System that are moribund or useless to ones where there is a better chance of being able to use them to create Our System.

This is an abstract overview of how the three motifs must be woven to expand our control over our lives and our freedom of choice.

Next Time: Using the System as a Tool

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(P8): The Three Motifs

A stable three cord knot made of fiber light colored rope.
Weaving Motifs

FutureStrategy has three motifs, like the three cords in the image, but functioning as flows rather than things. The three flows arise out of the model from the last slide.

Using The System as a Tool

Our Community will continue to depend on The System for a long time, even as we build an alternative. The sheer amount of social resources embedded in The System makes it impossible to seriously consider going “off the grid”. But we can begin to reduce our dependence on The System by viewing it as a Tool that we use to support our personal and social lives rather than as The Solution, a perspective that makes us instant victims when The System fails to support us.

Advocating with The System for Valued Change

We can advocate with The System to trigger valued change, as I described earlier in this series. Advocacy requires us to perturb The System (whatever it is), making it choose between embracing the valued change that drives our advocacy or be forced to uncontrollably change by the pressure from The System’s environment. Our goal in expanding our advocacy is to perturb more deeply and comprehensively.

Building Our Systems of Support

We can build Our System to make up for the failure of The System, as we do now when we have no choice. We can build Our System as a local, stable, small-scale alternative to The System, so that between The System and Our System, we have better dynamic supports that allow us to explore life’s possibility and expand the scope of our free choice.

Although I outlined the three motifs as separate, it doesn’t take much effort to realize that they are intertwined as we play them out in our lives and communities. At the same time, each of the motifs requires its own ways and means to become effective. For example, if we were to take our success in building Our System and turn it over to The System, our work would soon be transformed into just another version of The System.

This reality doesn’t mean that we don’t look to improve our success by observing how each of the motifs is evolving, asking ourselves how success in one can support success in the others.

I’ve included the opensource narrative creation tool Twine because weaving multiple strategies is more like creating a complex story than it is like building a ”Strategic Plan”.

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(P3): Other Examples of Weak Constraints

Stylized figures of generic viruses, bacteria etc.

Because the CAS that we target for advocacy are very complex systems tied to a very complex larger environment, there are a very large number of weak constraints (WC) available for potential destabilization. Obviously, not all weak constraints might be similarly effective in producing a specific advocacy outcome. And, in fact, we tend to use multiple weak constraints to effect a positive advocacy outcome.

But because it seems easier or more efficient to use techniques that have proven successful in the past, we build habits of ignoring other possibilities (a kind of faux “efficiency” argument). I would argue that creativity is an essential part of successful advocacy, if only because the target system will adapt to your advocacy efforts, and you must have a ”habit” of introducing novelty into your advocacy efforts to not have them degraded significantly over time.

So I offer this list, not as anything like a complete one, but to allow meditating by review of the possibilities. Perhaps one of these might trigger a realization on your part that would point to a more sophisticated novel approach to a high-quality advocacy outcome.

Legal WC:

  • Complaints
  • Fair hearings
  • Lawsuits of various kinds

Political WC:

  • Publicity
  • Politician-targeted problem solving
  • Boards and Councils
  • Elections

Financial WC:

  • Public Funding
  • Resource Allocation
  • Financial Disparities

Systemic WC:

  • Threatening Governing Constraints
  • Introducing Novelty

Organizing WC:

  • Emerging an Insurgency
  • Building local or community resistance
  • Effective Advocacy Training
  • Building Community Advocacy Supports

Any single or combination of these WC’s could be targeted for destabilization in a specific advocacy strategy.

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(P2): A Cognitive Anchor for Understanding Constraints in Advocacy

The notes for the slide or post describe the components and interactions of this diagram. No shorter description would be effective.

The use of constraints in advocacy requires a different view of them than our day-to-day understanding. The above model is not a complete one for understanding constraints, but it has the advantage of being concrete and simple.

The basic idea is that the strongest constraints are the ones that a target system wishes to protect most carefully. I have put them well inside the “boundary” of the system to imply that. The System Boundary is “Active” because it is always interacting with the weak constraints that stabilize its overall activity.

The weak constraints are on the boundary. Even though they are weak, they are still integrated with the target system to some extent. The target prefers to keep these weak constraints unable to materially affect the target’s activity even though they can’t simply eliminate the weak constraint interaction with the target system. So, the target system “manages” weak constraints to keep them predictable and less able to affect the Strong Constraints.

The simplest way to think of the role of weak constraints in “ordinary reality” is to view their individual constraint activity as a roughly repeating cycle. The target system manages these weak constraints by managing what it believes is the specific weak constraint cycle. The goal of management of weak constraints is to minimize the costs of management by reducing the effects of the weak constraint on the target system.

Being real constraints, the weak constraints are not entirely predictable. As advocates, we can also intentionally change the activity of one or more weak constraints to destabilize the target system in ways the target can’t anticipate. This successful destabilizing requires the target to respond in ways outside its normal routine, creating a leverage point for advocacy. We use this leverage point to coordinate and enable our effort to change the target in the same way we use our knee, for example, to pivot for a shot in a pickup basketball game or use our hands to alter the coordination of knitting needles to produce a particular knot.

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(P2): Safe-to-Fail Experiments as Weak Constraints

Strange yellow and black bicycle with a perfectly square frame and no brakes.

The idea of Safe-to-Fail Experiments was developed by Dave Snowden as part of his Cynefin framework. The technique is a way to learn about a complex adaptive system without triggering unintended consequences that are out of your control (See the link above.) But the concept of using probes to learn about complex systems is useful in many other contexts, most notably, in social justice advocacy.

Most advocacy is premised on the idea that there are legal constraints on the behavior of target systems, and that these constraints can be used to change the behavior of the system. In other words, advocacy can use procedures repeatedly to create change. Implicitly, we only need to understand the legal constraint under which a system operates and the change procedures (complaints, lawsuits, etc.). We don’t need to understand the politics or history of the system we are trying to change, all of which are, of course, other kinds of constraints.

But we do need to appreciate these aspects of a system before we can hope to successfully change it. This is because even the most apparently logical procedural path of some bureaucratic machine is, as we all know, a little “Peyton Place”, more complex and messier than the bones of the procedure would suggest.  Which is to say, all bureaucracies are Complex Adaptive Systems using much of their available energy to prevent disturbance from creating change through forcing them to modify existing constraints.

From inside a bureaucracy (or any large organization, including for-profit corporations), creating change must involve experiments too small to trigger annihilation of the experimenters or the CAS, but enabling you to learn something useful about the systems dispositional trajectory, about its system of constraints.

Safe-To-Fail is also a useful tool for changing that most personal of CAS, yourself.

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Part 1: Changing Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS): How Exactly?

A slide entitled Wrangling Complexity, with stick figures working on computers to manage a network shown on a large screen.

There are two problems with the Title Question: How and Exactly.

We automatically use machine model beliefs and operational planning to build and implement change. Such an approach is largely inadequate for a CAS.

Any CAS has mechanical aspects and we can delude ourselves into thinking that because we can change the mechanical aspects with operational planning, that we should be able to change the whole Kit and Kaboodle that way (as in, for example, “you can only change what you can measure”, and similar sophistry).

It ain’t so.

As the slide image suggests, changing a CAS is more like wrangling (cats, say) than standard measurable outcomes based operational planning would have us believe.

If our old standard tools and operating assumptions don’t give us the control we seek, what will?

Well, the bad news is that nothing will give us that amount or scope of control over a CAS. The good news, as unlikely as it might seem, is that we can change the way we approach CAS and be effective.

A CAS is a “dispositional system”, not a mechanical one. A CAS tends to move in directions, but because of the interaction of its parts, there are no guarantees about where it will end up.

Changing a CAS is like approaching a cobra to take close up photos. You can get those photos, but you need to be circumspect to avoid getting bit.

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(P5): Recovery

A circular wheel entitled
Wellness Wheel

Recovery is a specific framework of mutual support that has general use in building our counterstroke and embracing the values of personalism as our framework for eliminating belittlement.

Recovery focuses on individuals building personal control over the parts of their life (variously called symptoms, barriers, or processes of oppression), using natural supports and mutual support networks to build these recovery skills.

There are many techniques and concepts for creating recovery skills, and some are included in the resources in the post. But at its base, Recovery is about creating a personally customized response to what prevents you from living a free life of choice, using your own knowledge of yourself, your creativity, and the experience of those who support you. The particular tools you embrace to support your recovery journey are less important than that those tools speak to you, and make it easier for you to go forward.

FutureStrategy

a series of identical doors made of wood
Which One?

FutureStrategy is my framework for the disability community to use in developing both our resistance to the current degradation of our living conditions and life possibilities and as a way of thinking about how we might build a different future.

FutureStrategy is a detailed perspective on the possibilities of where we are now and where we might go. It isn’t a magic talisman or 7 steps to total success. There is no simple answer to the problems we face now or in the near term. If we want a real solution, we will have to create one.

Simply stopping the attacks we face now will not restore what was. Our society is headed in a direction which will cause great pain for the disability community (and everyone else), and that direction was set a long time ago. We can make things better or worse in the short run, but we can’t reverse the decline of our society completely.

As a first step in describing FutureStrategy, I will be going through an Overview presentation that I developed, using a slide format to talk about the basic ideas, one at a time. The slides will include notes for each idea and I will publish them on this blog.  I will also include occasional posts about other issues that illustrate the ideas of FutureStrategy as they arise.

In a few months, I will begin to publish material from a second presentation, a much longer and deeper one, that expands and details the ideas of the Overview. I will make these available through a subscription service called Patreon so that I will be able to fund my work on these ideas. There will be tiers for the subscriptions, including one that allows access to all the blog posts for $2 a month. The other tiers will include various materials and a podcast.

I hope you will consider subscribing, and I would like to know what you think of the material I publish in the next few months from the overview presentation.

I would also be able to do the presentation in person for a group if you think that would be useful. Email me at wayofthefan@gmail.com if you become interested in a presentation after you see the slide-based posts.