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Nourishing Ideas > Philia in the Community > Contribution

Being a citizen is much more than asserting one's rights. It is also about making our contribution, and accepting our responsibilities to the common good. The old definition of 'citizen' encouraged a certain passivity. What is required today is a new definition, one that inspires the engagement and diverse contribution of everyone.
        - Michael Ignatieff

All caring citizens are united by a sense of obligation to contribute to the common good. Without our collective contributions we would not have a community. Most of us accept this responsibility without giving it a second thought, but some members of society are prevented from making their contribution. The contributions of citizens with disabilities, for example, are often overlooked, discounted or thwarted. This may happen for a number of reasons:

  • People with disabilities are not expected to contribute
  • People with disabilities are not seen as having anything of value to contribute
  • Physical barriers prevent them from contributing
  • Contribution is seen exclusively as an action - as doing something

As a result of these assumptions, individuals with a disability are often not really seen as citizens. The same is true for others in society who have been labeled, isolated or marginalized. This is a major loss, both for the individuals in question and for society as a whole. The health of our communities depends on the participation of everyone; we cannot afford to waste or ignore anyone's contribution. Indeed, we are convinced that welcoming the participation and contribution of all citizens will transform our society.

At the heart of contribution is relationship, since it's through relationships that most of us make our contributions to the world. When we aren't fully integrated into our communities through relationships, we're unable to contribute. Human rights activist Catherine Frazee identifies four conditions necessary to promote and protect inclusive relationships:

1. Being physically present - in the room, at the table, on the team. Showing up - getting to just be there - is the first step.

2. But it's not enough. Being able to interact - with necessary supports, but without interference - is also critical. That's step number two.

3. Unfortunately, the time necessary to form new relationships, to integrate new people and perspectives into existing structures is often underestimated - even more so when these people are dealing with disabilities. But that's number three: appropriate time invested up front yields enormous dividends down the road.

4. Finally, relationships are built through shared enterprise. The process is complementary: when people with disabilities actually have the opportunity to share their energy and perspective, to work together with other members of the community towards a shared goal - to contribute - that's what establishes and nurtures the connection.

Naturally, we're looking at contribution through the lens of disability. That's where we come from and that's our perspective. You could substitute "old", "young", "poor" or any other category for "people with disabilities", though, and recognize that the same conditions apply to everyone. What's your experience?

When you cease to make a contribution, you begin to die.
- Eleanor Roosevelt

Two Kinds of Contribution

Contribution can take two main forms. We make contributions through our actions - what we call contributions of doing. And we make contributions by our very presence - what we call contributions of being.

Our culture tends to notice and value the contributions of doing more than the contributions of being. Yet when a child is born, the first (perhaps pre-eminent) gift it offers the world is its presence. Simply by being, a newborn helps to create meaningful interaction, communion and fellowship. And the gifts of presence continue throughout our lives. That gift may be a helping hand, a spark of love, a moment of insight, the comfort of silence, a pleasurable experience, an inspiring interchange, or a thrilling encounter. All of these contributions are made possible simply through the gift of presence.

Related to the gift of presence is the gift of diversity. Diversity is about our differences. Difference creates meaning and value. Can you imagine how life would be if there were no differences, no diversity? If every person looked, thought and talked the same? If every flower were exactly the same, or every day exactly the same? If everyone and everything were the same, there would be no excitement, no mystery, no allure, no curiosity, no anticipation - and likely no desire, wonder, amazement, fascination, enchantment, or inspiration.

One of the contributions of individuals with a disability is that they remind us of the contributions of being. They remind us that humans are subjects, not objects. To be a subject is to interact with the world, to have a gift, to make a contribution. Unfortunately not everyone recognizes the gifts of our friends and family members with a disability. To some, people with a disability are not people who do, but people to whom things are done - objects to be moved around at will. In the desire to "help" and "fix" people with a disability, the interests, talents and contributions of our friends and loved ones go unnoticed.

Many of the programs and services available for people with disabilities operate from this value base. This is why the social, emotional and spiritual aspects of people are often ignored, and why the possibilities for pursuing their passion are left unexplored. Yet humans have a drive to "become". We take pleasure in contributing, in doing our fair share, in being useful, in creating - in making a contribution to the common good. Individuals with a disability remind us that we are human beings - not human doings.

Initiatives of Note

The University of Victoria Assistive Technology Team (UVATT),  in collaboration with the Garth Homer Society, has embarked on an ambitious program to build an online learning and community-building resource and support network for the disability community. The overall goal of the program is to increase the opportunities for people with disabilities to be engaged in the community, and to have their contributions to society recognized and appreciated. Read more...

Have Your Say

Related Items
Rebecca Beayni's presentation to the United Nations. 

Philia Being and Doing.

Tim Brodhead's speech on citizenship and contribution.
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