Reading Mind Maps

Do I Know What You Want?

Recently, I spent time in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore to listen and contribute to the development of national public policy for people with disabilities and their families. While the policy discussions and determinations are vital, understanding and changing our human behavior is critical to moving beyond division to inclusion.

As human beings, we are wired to create mental maps that help us to make sense of the world. To do so, we subconsciously scan for patterns that affirm the hypotheses we have about the world. That’s right—our mental maps seek agreement with what we already believe. And if we’re not paying attention, we don’t even notice! We hear what our mind wants us to hear.

Here’s what I continue to observe:

Individuals with a disability and those in their supporting circle want services and support to look a certain way. Those services are requested and often not available. Instead, they’re shown what is available and get a “take it or leave it” response.

In the past, services for those with disabilities were only offered in institutions. Institutions limited choice. People wanted choice. Choices weren’t allowed. System change occurred, slowly, over time. Services became more and more available in the community. While many people liked this change, some did not.

Advocates calling for the next wave of change argue that people with disabilities should all live in their own homes in the community or with their families. Their rationale? It’s more inclusive, it’s what people want, and it’s less expensive.

Are the advocates of this wave of change getting it right? Yes and no.

The changes to move away from centralized service delivery into an independent home-based setting are what some people want. We need to find ways to make independent housing available for people who want it.

People who want this change to move all services away from centralized models of service delivery believe everyone else wants that too. And if they don’t want it now, they should!

The second point–deciding what should people want–is the slippery slope that we try to avoid. The last 40 years in disability services policy have been about opening and honoring choices for individuals. In policy and practice, we must guard against limiting individuals’ choices because we believe we know what’s better or makes sense for them. If we’ve learned nothing else, I hope we’ve learned that imposing our beliefs on another person or another culture creates resentment and division.

My task, and my challenge to you, is to pay attention to what is happening with your mental maps. When am I imposing my beliefs and view of the world on someone else? I want to listen better, and more, so there’s room for others.

Who gets to decide? I believe choices should be individually made; there is no one size fits all when it comes to how and where we want to live. Not for you and me, not for those living with a disability. Our collective job is to make room for a range of possibilities. Community is about how we create room for every person in our village. Choice matters. Independence and personal freedom should be for all.