Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Honouring Equity

Inspiring change: insights, challenges, hopes and actions

The language we use to talk about issues of equity is such an important consideration when seeking to achieve an inclusive culture. Certain words we use exemplify prejudiced thinking that is oppressive to some, and if left unchallenged can lead to discrimination without thought. Where people can articulate their thinking clearly, they will be better able to speak about inequality, and therefore avoid voicing ideas are harmful.

Raising equity is an increasing imperative for all services and needs to be talked about courageously, otherwise it will continue to be seen as an add-on dependent on goodwill. In the present world recession, the added hardship vulnerable people face can be overwhelming and the ensuing impact on their resilience may negatively affect their life chances (Children’s Well-being Report, Children’s Society 2011). Being able to choose use language that is respectful is dependant on a clear understanding of what causes inequality. Currently this understanding varies widely between people and workplaces. Some families inevitably lose out because for a number of reasons ‘provision is less effective in areas of high deprivation; and the more deprived the area, the worse the provision… the quality of universal services is the best guarantee they have of a good start in life’ (Ofsted Annual Report 2011 pg 10). Where families face growing negative attitudes, in addition to existing pressures, their entitlement to full inclusion is often denied as their needs become marginalised within mainstream service (Scope 2011). Because difference is often described in negative ways the resulting prejudice affects professional attitudes. These ‘seem to range from absolute rejection of any form of social disadvantage as unacceptable through passive acceptance (“The poor are always with us”) to the positive rejection of the possibility or desirability of equality and equity’ (Chapman and West-Burnham 2009 pg. 4).

Because language reinforces stereotypes, there is a need to think carefully about the words used within the earshot of children. For example, using a medical label when talking about a child reinforces an idea of personal deficit, this can be harmful to the relationship with the parent and ultimately the child’s self-esteem. However, hearing the perspective of people from the groups that are worst affected by cultural stereotypes can bring a different perspective on shared terminology. Particularly if those people also have expertise to share. For example interviewing a disabled person on the street gives you an unique experience, whilst interviewing a Disability Trainer will give you a theoretical perspective as they will have expertise in equality to add to the experience.

While dialogue with people from marginalised groups is essential to create new thinking, action is also needed to apply the most respectful ideas to new ways of talking about shared experience. The use of the term disablism, for example, has come from the thinking of disabled people, it helps place the problem outside the person and within shared culture. The challenge for any professional community is to find words that articulate this quite specific idea respectfully, in order to describe the negative effects of inequality. The challenge for most ethically motivated professionals will be to ‘make time to learn the new theory and research before developing social-justice-orientated materials’, activities and language (Marshall and Olivia 2006:2).

Striving towards more equitable outcomes for everyone is as much about cultural change as it is about a legal entitlement. Starting with the most vulnerable, with a duty to support those who face disadvantage currently, positive change should be desirable for all. Importantly though, the most vulnerable need to be the first beneficiaries, otherwise change may not redress disadvantage imposed on the least advantaged. Putting into place practice to raise equity comes with a duty to practice proportionate intervention or support, the argument is that the greater the level of disadvantage the greater the level of intervention that is needed to secure fair entitlement (Chapman, 2011). From this perspective, deliberately choosing to use certain terms may be a timely intervention that is effective but requires few resources as it is inspired by the desire for social justice through the practice of co-production. Where people are able to talk about fairness more confidently in daily conversations, and where they value other people’s contribution, more equal outcomes will emerge from a different culture for everybody.

How can we inspire change for honouring equity?

Vulnerable people, as we all do, need to feel a sense of belonging by contributing to our community culture ways that are meaningful to individual experience. We all benefit by exploring the vocabularies that impose division, hurt or shame challenges us all as we are all likely to be subject to ways of working that dehumanise. Where words are used to label for example, or to designate groups we feel are impoverished, the implication is that that group is to blame. More worryingly, where inequality between groups is accepted because of labelling the wider problem is ignored. Unlike positive spin, the intentional use of respectful language insures a focus the possibility of change (applicable to everyone).

In the words of the Dalai Lama "Each one of us is responsible for the whole of humankind. We need to think of each other really as brothers and sisters and to be concerned for each other’s welfare. Rather than working solely to acquire wealth, we need to do something meaningful, something directed seriously towards the welfare of humanity as a whole.".

Creating change might be practitioners deciding to not use medical labels and instead speak of what change is needed within their practice to secure the fullest entitlement of human rights. Ultimately the challenge is to work in ways that challenge inequality so that greater movement is possible towards a more equitable culture; changes to our communities in this scale is neither immediately available nor instantly achievable in the present - but maybe possible in the future.

Education for All – Where does equity fit in education and who is ‘All’?

The principle of equality has to be reinforced and extended by the practice of equity. Where equality is seen as an absolute and equal right to common dignity and parity of esteem and a full entitlement to access the benefits of society on equal terms. Equity then means every human being has a right to benefit from the outcomes of society on the basis of fairness and according to need (Chapman & West-Burnham 2009).

Professionals rarely make conscious choices that lead to exclusion, but there are systems or mechanisms that maintains dominance for certain groups. ‘It is a positive upward spiral rewarding those who match expectations and excluding those who may wish to lead differently… dismantles this cosy picture by pointing out the negative side of community’ (Lumby with Coleman, 2007, p 41). There is therefore a duty within mainstream provision such as education to ensure every child benefits equally from shared experience. As UNICEF Director Anthony Lake’s vision illustrates: “the idea that development investment must target those in greatest need. People are coming to understand equity, not only as a moral requirement but also as a practical imperative, providing the most effective way to reach the most vulnerable,” (UNICEF Focus on innovation and equity conference, 4 May 2011).

Creating change – deconstructing and reconstructing theory and practice for equity

Whilst Equality Theory is easily delivered, it is more difficult to apply it to the development vocabularies as a strategy to address equity. At the core of practice, and to maximise resources in difficult circumstance, action needs to be proactive to address the causes of inequality – not merely adjusting to the unfairness – but aiming for deeper transformation in order to create more democratic and socially just environments (Marshall and Olivia 2006:2). In other words, giving disabled people the opportunity to deliver Disability Equality training stops short of applying disability theory, employing disabled practitioners would be a fuller articulation of their ideas, the social model of disability, in order to address disablism within our organisations and services.

Exploring multiple childhoods for equity

For instance, pretending to use a wheelchair, or wearing goggles, is a poor way of finding out how disabled people live within the communities that treat the as scroungers. Therefore, intentional action taken by a professional community must also take account of real lives of people using their organisations to be effective in matching the direct needs of those accessing provision. Whilst the bigger picture may be overwhelming to some, honouring equity in
context may be best understood as involving people at risk of marginalisation as partners in meaningful change. This will require actual conversation so that daily practice is changed to reflect the ebb and flow of ideas that surface with each opportunity for dialogue. Ultimately, taking the time to change our language may be the best way to change culture, and the values with our communities, as dialogue deepens a sense of belonging for potentially alienated individuals. Traditional ways of doing things can alienate without thought as inequitable practice dehumanises whole groups subject to unfair treatment. While communities are becoming both more mobile and diverse, moving away from ‘them’ and ‘us’ to a model of multiple identities for people always changing in the modern world. Theories may need to be re-evaluated to adjust, moving away from age appropriated or linear and incremental learning models towards a more holistic approach, or journey, allowing stage development to respond to context, culture and background for every learner.

Examining silence and privilege for equity
How do we ensure that people from disadvantaged groups develop an equal sense of entitlement? Unfortunately, social hierarchy will indicate which groups are likely to face less favourable conditions. Where wealth and deprivation exist cheek by jowl, an awareness of the level of local disparity is imperative in order to inform subtle reframing an appropriately focused strategy to help everyone gain autonomy with respect. The use of humour is a powerful example: teasing or laughing at others hurts "hey fish-slice!" directed repeatedly at the person with no fingers will cut deep, they may laugh once or twice, but after a few years the joke wear thin and imposes conditional pressure on the relationship. Used positively however it may help contradict self-deprecation for example when someone is feeling hopeless saying “of course you will change the world” may make the laugh and lighten the mood. Alternatively, it may be used to emphasise direction to help stimulate compassion towards those less advantaged “yes now you have all the power, but how does your friend feel?”.

In communities where there is an additional duty to concentrate effort on the most vulnerable, ethical practitioners will need to find ways of speaking lightly to help identify the particular support needed. more importantly, each will need to grow in strength in order to find in ways to help others grow in confidence, rather than exert power in ways that instil dependence.

Equity in an increasingly contested environment


Ethical activity, such as choosing respectful language, is one way in which moral principle is put into practice in the interest of all individuals, because words that are used without understanding have no meaning. With this view, ethical thinking may be best understood as an imperative to reach greater equity by applying the principle of equality of consideration, ie moving beyond the achievement of ‘same treatment’ or ‘equality of opportunity’ towards and ‘equality of interest’ where individuality is celebrated. For the practitioner this has wider implications than to provide adjustment to the phrasing within weekly planning and daily activity, it involves the questioning of ways of expressing deeply held ideas: belief, talent, luck or faith. In this sense choosing how to speak involves understanding much broader theories and ethical concepts – a strategic dimension. Furthermore, by increasingly focusing on the phrases that succeed in promoting fairness, practitioners may unlock increasing inspirational attitudes within in the culture within their organisation. In the long term this may help secure a better environment for everyone, as even where negative pressures cannot be alleviated, people may develop a spirit of resilience that helps recover from harm in ways that strengthen.

(With thanks to conversations with Alan Sloan.)


To be continued …

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