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Inviting Arts & Humanities into Social Services

Author: Gord Tulloch

Gord Tulloch is Director of Innovation at posAbilities, a leading community organisation in British Columbia. He argues that community organisations supporting people with intellectual disabilities need to open themselves up to the fullness of human creativity. People and their supporters are full human beings with creative needs and capacities.

From June 12-14th 2017, we spent time with Exeko, an organization in Montreal that uses the arts and philosophy to advance social change. Sounds esoteric and highbrow - but it wasn’t. It was the opposite of that. It was about reclaiming our collective humanity, and with it, recovering a more productive ground to our work. Too often, the social services sector gets stuck on basic needs - food, shelter, clothing. Safety. Getting By. Coping. Our craft has been about supplying that stability.

But somewhere, we lost sight of the deeper things.

Beauty. Meaning. Hope. Mystery. Love. 

We forgot that these things are perhaps more basic. 

Without them, we cannot live. 

Without them, the other things merely prolong our deaths.

The arts and philosophy are ways we have always tried to uncover, recover, create and cultivate meaning. Perhaps it is time to bring them into our everyday practice. To see if we can blend it into our professional codes and training, our protocols and strategies. This shift is about asking whether we might do more than feed and clothe the body, but whether we might also feed the soul, nourish the imagination, strengthen the spirit, and engage the intellect. This shift recognises that the levers of change lie less in things, and more in how we see our world and ourselves.

June 12th

At the Museum of Vancouver, and against the beautiful backdrop of an ocean inlet and the North Shore Mountains, about 100 people gathered to hear how the arts and humanities might assist them with the change they want to see in the world.

A couple things stood out from this presentation.

First, the notions of intellectual marginalization and intellectual emancipation. The former is about how our assumptions around people’s intellect inhibit us from having important conversations with them. This includes not inviting them to participate in problem-solving and idea generation, even when the subject-matter is about them. We assume that “proper” reflection and analysis is beyond their grasp, and we dismiss their sensibilities, wisdom and experience as flawed, or not material, or not relevant. In this way we condemn them to powerlessness. And, in our conceit, we don’t invite critical perspectives to help us understand and navigate complexity.

Intellectual emancipation occurs when one is able to overcome the things that are holding one intellectually captive. This recognises the essential role that thought and imagination plays in dislodging the yoke of oppression--to understand the shape of the barriers within ourselves and within the world, and to cast our vision past them. It enables us to discern the gaps between what is and what could be, and to become active agents of change. There can be no overcoming or self-overcoming if we are unable to problematise our circumstances nor imagine our possibilities.

When one is intellectually marginalised and treated as intellectually inferior, it is impossible for intellectual emancipation to occur. One is not invited to criticize, construct or negotiate our institutional norms and social conventions. When we assume the intellectual inferiority of the people we serve, we strip them of voice. Of power. Of their futures. In this way we diminish ourselves as “oppressors,” and we diminish the greatness in “other” and the world.

Second, the notion of the presumption of intelligence. This is not a philosophical or scientific proposition; it is an ethical posture. It is a conviction that (1) all intelligences and perspectives matter and are needed to co-create a better world and (2) emancipation is the moral rejoinder to oppression and (3) treating others as intellectual equals--that is, as persons whose perspectives, sensibilities, and experiences are just as relevant (and irrelevant) as others--expands the possibilities of self and world, which is morally preferable to restricting them.

Where notions of intellectual inferiority are imputed, intellectual marginalization prevails, and possibility is severely constricted. The Pygmalion effect means that people internalise and perform the perceptions we have of them. When we treat people as inferior, which is how perception is manifested, they come to embody those preconceptions and the possibilities for themselves and their role in the world are greatly attenuated. When we treat people as equals, their possibilities greatly expand. One disposition shrinks opportunity, one opens it up. What does our duty require of us?

Sure, someone could always ask: 

“suppose there were ways to definitively measure all aspects of intelligence? Wouldn’t we then have to concede that some intelligences are superior or inferior to others? In such a case, wouldn’t we need to dispense with the presumption of intelligence and realign our attitude to recognise the fact that some people might be less intelligent than others?” 

The answer is: “I don’t care” (regarding perfect scientific measurement) and “no” (regarding the attitude adjustment). It doesn’t matter. 

The deficiency that matters is around inclusion, not intelligence. It is a choice whether to organise the world along superior and inferior lines, or among lines of equality. When we choose the latter, we grow possibility, inclusion and the foundations of a democratic society. When we legitimise marginalization as a natural and logical state of affairs, we dehumanise and disempower others, and our society is the poorer for it.

June 13th

With this as background, what are the implications for the disability sector? With some leaders and thinkers from disability organizations, we parsed through what the implications of this might be for us.

The first observation is that this notion of shifting practice so that we can more intentionally address deeper needs such as meaning, beauty and hope, is neither a criticism of what we do, nor a replacement for it. It is completely complementary. Our work until now has been important work. Critical work. At the same time, the focus of the social services sector on basic needs has created the gap that small organizations like Exeko are trying to address. Can we create a model in BC that infuses arts and philosophy into our everyday practice so that we are addressing both basic needs and the deeper ones?

Once upon a time, our organizations were among the champions of change. We stood with families to close the institutions and turn social conventions and expectations on their heads. Can we do it again? And what would our role be?

Certainly, it is not our role to intellectually emancipate others--that is an absurd pretension. We can only emancipate ourselves. However, we do have a role in constructing the conditions under which people can have opportunities to pursue self-overcoming and empowerment, to pursue beauty and meaning. But what is that role? Is it just about getting out of the way? A resourcing role? A credo? Pressing for systemic shifts in practices or assumptions?

Every locality is different--each has it’s own history, it’s own collection of people, assumptions, values, protocols, norms, culture, etc. This is, in effect, is its terroir. What is the terroir of British Columbia, and the disability sector more specifically, that will allow experimentations to fill the gaps in our present system? Our intent is not to simply import Exeko’s approaches and to transplant them into our local context. The context is so different, they may not take. Rather, we should be thinking about what would make sense in BC and what would be more readily nourished, adopted and/or spread. What is the soil of our system, and what can be more readily grown in it?

In Exeko’s context, it made sense for them to become event-peddlers. They were not delivering services, rather, they were showing up in the contexts of services and prompting completely different conversations. They opened up space to talk about things like story, music, and justice--not accidentally, or on the fly, but with forethought and intent. They brought in subject-experts to participate. Over time, attendance grew, self-expression grew, everyday conversations changed, culture changed. People changed. This should not be surprising. While the meeting of basic needs keep us alive and safe, it is the confrontation with beauty, meaning and love that summons us to our lives. That instructs us in our own value and worth. That urges us to wrest back control from the people and things that are stealing our futures.

Can we introduce something like this into the context of our services, though preferably not as a traditional sort of program or curriculum. Can professional staff, rather than observing these conversations, convene them? Can the people we serve convene them? Can we fill the gap with something different than what usually fills gaps in our professional systems? For example, do we need to assign a trickster role within our organizations (a character in aboriginal mythology that disrupts norms and conventions and prompts change)?

And where better to begin than with the language of “disability” which captures and ensnares people, which makes them, represents them, and situates them in a specific sociocultural context? Language is powerful; it is a power that the ancient spell-casters intuited. Today, within the disability context, it is our social, academic and professional Institutions that cast the spells of making and unmaking. Is it time to invite our poets, musicians, story-tellers and philosophers to make the incantations? To teach people with disabilities to become their own spell-casters? Is it time to be enchanted by new meanings? What if we invited them to reflect with the people we serve on language and identity and to create new meanings, new inflections, richer nuances? There is much ado on identity and representation politics within the academic literature and popular media, but persons with intellectual disabilities are severely underrepresented in those arenas. Do we bring arts and philosophy to bear, first, on language and identity? Self-discovery, excavation and creation?

Lastly, we will need to keep evaluation in mind--it’s a tricky thing. How do we measure culture shift? Social transformation? Emancipation and opportunity? Are there ways to get at flourishing and happiness (yes, though they may be onerous). That said, what matters to whom, and how we count it, is often about power and politics. Can we see evaluation less as a funder-driven requirement, and more of a means of enquiry that helps us to detect patterns around shifts in identity, emotions and wellbeing? And over time? Can we avoid the philosophical debate between positivism v constructivism (and the rabbit hole of what is knowable and how), and take a pragmatic position that focuses simply on learning and growth in individuals?

So, what next? 

It seems that we are agreed that it is time to address deeper needs, and that to do so, we will want to draw from the wisdom of the arts and the humanities. Do we begin with a creed? An invitation? Another conversation? Or do we each undertake to try something ourselves or within our organizations, something that adds light to our path? 

While the existential imperative to live fully must not be held hostage to a planning process, but must be answered daily, the more that we can plan and strategise together, the better hope we have of being able to create abundant conditions for human flourishing.

Connect with Gord via his website and on twitter. 


The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Inviting Arts & Humanities into Social Services © Gord Tulloch 2017.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.