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A Lesson in
Applied Diversity

By Jeremy Opperman

A term I have had knocking around in my mind for some time now. Applied Diversity. I nearly called my workshop by this name, but felt that one should "watch the knitting" and focus on your core business which included the name, so I settled on "Meeting Disability" instead.
But the concept of applied theory or theoretical practice has always fascinated me as being logically imperative, and in fact preferable to pure theoretical activity.
This of course is a long winded way of admitting that I was, and am, a lousy student. Easily distracted and frustrated by heavy academic theory, with its interminable reference to obscure and often inaccessible texts, (to me) appeared to be mostly theoretical academic masturbation.

This has led to an energetic career of trying to put a practical and applicable spin on one of the most misunderstood, misrepresented and underestimated aspects of diversity.

A key component of this same energetic career has been an attempt to address prevailing paradigms associated with this exiled child of diversity.
This is notwithstanding 40 years of vigorous (mostly overseas) debate, writing, activism, legislation, experimentation and needless to say mega tons of academic theory that exist in the world.
In my opinion, an approach needs to be taken that would cut through the padding, and go to the heart of the issue. Interestingly, this route and intended destination are often missing in theoretical models. The need to break the emotional barriers in order to access and acquire intellectual and practical commitment and participation.
In my experience the reason this is imperative is that diversity is not a theoretical issue at all, but a raw, in your face practical reality, experienced by on the ground living people that are highly unlikely to ever read a thing about diversity and its ramifications, but who are living, witnessing and experiencing these ramifications on a daily basis.
Hence (the need for) Applied Diversity (teaching).

To add a further spice to the mix, Disability, (as a component of Diversity) is plagued by almost medieval mythology and steeped in fear based reticence which makes any effort of education extremely difficult and fragile.
The best way I have found to transmit these concepts to the majority of people is through anecdotal teaching and emotionally charged process.
After 200 workshops and twice that many talks, I can say with conviction, that the "penny drops".

Let me tell you a story about applied diversity in practice…..

In 2004, preparations were being made for a particular Women's day celebration and presentation.
A particular cabinet minister was coordinating events, and had amongst others nominated a certain lady to be honoured at the occasion.
This woman is known to the Minister as she sits on the board of a major parastatel, well employed in a large multi national and is generally a model citizen.
As the programme was being fine tuned with still weeks to go, this lady thought to point out that she was a wheel chair user, and that she hoped that the proposed venue was accessible.
She took for granted that her having raised this issue would be sufficient to ensure a safe and accessible experience.

Apparently, some time later, the Minister, on his own volition, knowing this ladies situation, enquired of his coordinators, whether the venue was accessible or not.
They replied that they had made enquiries, and had been assured that it was.
He then took it upon himself to send someone to check…..
Surprise, surprise! It was not.
Here is the stunning part.
It was now less than a week to go….
The Minister gave instructions for an alternative venue to be sourced, one that was genuinely accessible, and simply changed the venue, at a moments notice.
On the day hundreds of people had to be specially bussed to the correct venue, and he apologised to the lady for the oversight.
That is applied diversity!

A line from the Movie "Pretty Woman" with Julia Roberts springs to mind, in the scene, where she returns to the boutique that had been so rude to her before, and shows off her new purchases and says:…
"You work on commission, right?"
The sales assistant nods, and Julia Roberts says:
"Big mistake,…big, …huge…"

What this wonderful story illustrates to me is what is so sorely lacking amongst our executives particularly and society in general, the ability to deal with this aspect of diversity in an unpatronising and instinctive way.
No abstinence of responsibility, no blaming, no automatic denial, that we are becoming so accustomed to.
Simply taking this aspect of diversity seriously from the beginning and ensuring the ladies dignity and that of the day remain intact.
In a perfect world, no extra attention should have been paid to her because she happened to be a wheelchair user. Sadly however, we are a long way from the Holy Grail of Disability related applied diversity.

When Disability becomes so significant, as to become a non event.

Jeremy Opperman
February 2006