Not only for the disabled but for society at large

“Interdependence is and ought to be as much the ideal of man as self-sufficiency. Man is a social being.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

On Heritage Day last year, I was privileged to witness one of the most poignant displays of loving interdependence imaginable. I was invited to a braai at an Independent living center where I met a couple that were obviously very much in love. If not for the fact that he is a quadriplegic with only limited movement in one arm, he could easily have been a lock forward for a rugby team. She on the other hand is a petit hemiplegic. Both had motor car accidents to thank for their situations. She told me that after her accident, her friends initially came to visit but later just drifted away. After ten years of loneliness she met him and through his world, became socially involved again. He runs the Independent living center with an iron will to make it work, for the benefit of all the residents.

We all sat in a circle chatting and she helped him with his drinks but when the food was served, their interdependence came to the fore; She sat tightly against him but facing away from the circle, looking at him and with her good arm at his side. Sharing a common bowl of food, she helped herself and placed bits of food in his mouth, including biting off pieces of braaied meat and handing it to him. In turn he looked at her and smiled at her in a way that made her feel like a princess…

What I learned from this is that interdependence does not start with doing things for one another, it starts with being someone for one another, it is to be found in our attitudes. Our focus on independence has a tendency to make us proud and arrogant but in sharing who we are, giving of our grace and our love, we draw closer to one another.

“In the progress of personality, first comes a declaration of independence, then a recognition of interdependence.” (Henry Van Dyke)

I was asked recently to read through the National Disability Rights Policy Discussion Document. The document motto is; “Together, through action, we can make a difference”. The document describes two aproaces to disability: A social model and a human rights approach. In my opinion, the human rights aproach focuses more on recognition of independence whereas the social model recognises our interdependence and is therefore to my mind, the more mature approach.

Quoted from the document: “The social model focuses on the abilities of persons with disabilities rather than on their inabilities.  It assesses the impact that the socio-economic environment has on the full participation, inclusion and acceptance of persons with disabilities as part of mainstream society.  The social model emphasizes the need for broader systemic and attitude changes in society; the provision of accessible services and activities; and the mainstreaming of disability to ensure full inclusion of persons with disabilities as equals.  The model further dictates that persons with disabilities must actively participate in transformation processes that impact on their lives.”

 Independence is a teenage “me against the big bad world” mentality, but all of us, sooner or later discover that independence is a myth – we are all dependent on God and interdependent on one another. An old Japanese saying states that; “No one of us is cleverer than all of us”. In much the same way we can also say: “No one of us can survive without the rest of us.”

"Today, the mission of one institution can be accomplished only by recognizing that it lives in an interdependent world with conflicts and overlapping interests" (Jacqueline Grennan Wexler)

At the ACSA Disability Trade Show that recently took place at NASREC, I witnessed something that worried me. A senior official of QASA played down the value of the contribution of another NPO within the disability sector, apparently because it was an able-bodied organization that promoted the interests of the disabled through education (rather than legislation). I have a concern that there is a tendency in certain NPO’s to protect their turf and to only participate with other organizations if they can derive benefit, but not necessarily, if they can add value. Such an opportunistic attitude may work in the short term but is doomed to failure in the long term. The way in which we straddled the fence between OUTA and government in our efforts to protect the disabled against e- tolls is a case in point.

Interdependence is first and foremost about my willingness to add value outside of myself. If we focus inwardly, only on what we can gain and how to protect our turf, we will never grow to our full potential. If we reach out with the aim to support other organizations toward a common cause and even in the promotion of worthwhile causes that are not necessarily our own, we will grow in stature and gain the respect and support of others. Then we will be truly integrated into society. We can all be truly interdependent; giving of ourselves while receiving from others.