Soft Wisdom

24 Nov

It seems like months ago, now, but in reality it’s only been three or four days since I was wading through flooded evacuation centers and muddy neighborhoods just outside Manila, listening to the stories of Typhoon Ketsana victims.

I’m not exactly new at this. I’ve been around a bit.

But no matter how many relief operations I participate in, no matter how many disaster zones I visit, no matter how many haggard survivors tell me their stories, I always find that my eyes are opened in ways I did not anticipate when I finally make it out of the cubicle. While on the surface each response may feel “same same” with the previous one, when I escape the head office or the country office or even the project office and actually get out and talk to those affected (you know, actual people) my understanding expands more and farther and in ways I could never have foreseen. I might cut and paste text from a proposal for India into one for the Philippines. We might hand out the same NFIs or “shelter kits” for every emergency response. But every response is still unique, if not at an operational level, then at least at the level of the individual human beings being served.

When you sit in a cubicle or office churning out proposals, compiling data, doing media interviews, and explaining the basics of disaster response to fundraising staff, and generally directing email traffic, it gets easy for a response to become about sound-bites. It becomes a one-page summary of bulleted talking points, the bare facts of numbers and places. In the heat of a big, high-visibility disaster where I’m in an on-point role, I am as guilty as anyone of focusing on the cold facts and evaluating options numerically and letting it all (temporarily) be about those tasks which need doing. Human references get boiled down to scripted statements that seem either too bland or too over-the-top, but never right on the mark. We lose sight of people’s faces (and although it’s not the main point of the post, this all adds up to perhaps one of the very best reasons ever why HQ people and field people need to spend meaningful amounts of time in each other’s worlds).

And so, just a few days ago, I was spending time in the world of Marikina City, the “Shoe Capital” of the Philippines. I was in a neighborhood where backed up lagoon water had risen to well over three meters (comparable to The Tsunamis), and as it receded left mountains of trash, clogged sewers, and ruined shoe-making equipment and supplies. The people here most made their livings handmaking high quality shoes for sale in Manila’s boutiques and export throughout the region.

My employer’s Philippines team had done an absolutely crack job of responding with a wave of basic food and NFIs up front, followed by very extensive cash-for-work for cleanup in that municipality. By the time I walked through that small, peri-urban neighborhood, it looked almost back to normal. The streets were relatively clean and I could hear the sounds of shoes being made again through open workshop doors. The neighborhood “Captain” pointed out the still visible high-water line, about a third of the way up the second storey. The people living there clearly had challenges ahead of them, but they seemed very pleased with what had been done up to that point.

That’s when I met Joey.

He wheeled himself out to “our” little entourage with some effort. It was clear that Joey suffered from Cerebral Palsy or something similar. He was contorted and unable to speak. But it quickly became evident that Joey was fully capable intellectually. He’d learned to communicate by using a combination of fingers and toes to “type” text messages on a cell-phone that he kept on a lanyard around his neck. Joey was 26 years old.

Through our translator I learned that Joey was fluent in English and also a chess player of some fame, locally. Which was impressive enough. But what really struck me, standing there among a crowd of onlookers, watching Joey using his toes to text on a grimy Nokia, was how at home and – well – happy he seemed. I’ve been before in communities where people with disabilities like Joey’s were pestered and taunted by neighborhood children. I’ve also seen situations where people with disabilities of all kinds have been lumped together into “special” dank, grungy, unfunded institutions, sequestered away out of sight of a mainstream preoccupied the appearances of things. Maybe the mere fact of my presence there that day was a temporary deterrent, and everyone was on good behavior. But I did not detect even a hint of animosity or disdain or disregard for Joey among the growing crowd. If anything, they acted pleased to show him off to us.

In his 2007 documentary of the American health care industry, SiCKO, Michael Moore said something that really came back to me in that moment. I can’t remember the quote exactly verbatim, but it was approximately: “You can tell a lot about a society by how it treats it’s weakest members.”

Of course I’m in absolutely no position to judge anyone, anywhere. But if I were pressed to make an assessment of that community based on their treatment of Joey – treatment that was certainly costly in the context of that difficult time when every able body was needed to clean up and rebuild and restart the shoe-making business – I’d say they passed with flying colors.

And although I can’t precisely pin down all of the reasons why, I found that moment unexpectedly moving.

* * *

In parts of Southeast Asia – perhaps also the Philippines, I’m not exactly sure – there is a way of thinking about people with disabilities like Joey. It’s called “soft wisdom.” In some ways the concept of “soft wisdom” might be inappropriate in a western, politically correct sense. It tends, for example, to lump together those with Cerebral Palsy (like Joey) into the same category as those with, say, Down’s Syndrome. But in other ways I think that “soft wisdom” is a nearly perfect descriptor. I love the fact that it communicates a difference in ability and capability without an implicit value judgment.

Slammed back, in the space of only a few hours, into the head office grind of proposals and reports, strategies, meetings, and numerical analysis, I already fight the urge to too easily forget that emergency responses are, at the end of the day, about people. I can’t help but think back to Joey, talking to me by texting with his toes.

I’m still working out how “soft wisdom” applies here, but I’m convinced that somehow it does.

2 Responses to “Soft Wisdom”

  1. Holli 26 November, 2009 at 2:36 am #

    That was an excellently written post. In Ghana I find that for the most part, people with disabilities are hidden away, neglected or let out into the streets to fend for themselves.

    However, when I lived in a poor compound, there was a deaf guy who was treated with affection and attention by all in the family.

    The institutions here are dismal, but when these people are at home, they can be treated wonderfully. What i like is that people are not afraid to look at, talk to, inquire about disabilities, and they expect alot from disabled people – that way the people feel valuable and part of a family unit and not a burden like they so often feel in the West.

    • J. 26 November, 2009 at 12:54 pm #

      Thanks for your comment, Holli. Glad you liked it!🙂

      Addressing the needs of disabled people in other countries has never been directly part of my work or expertise. But from my own casual observation, those who stay in homes with their families are often much better cared for, and – if I could judge – have a much higher quality of life than those who stay in institutions.

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