“Disability” – too negative a term

This is a very brief post after watching some of the Paralympic Games of London 2012. I’m absolutely convinced that “disability” is not a word we should ever be using – at least not in the context we usually use it.

Clearly the athletes have characteristics which distinguish them from others, but the term seems far too negative and witnessing the achievements it doesn’t feel appropriate.

How about “differently abled“? This is a much more positive term which recognises the different abilities these athletes possess. It acknowledges that whilst the athletes have limitations, they possess other abilities too – and they are actively focusing on those rather than on those they lack.

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Opportunity

Following the sad news of the death of Neil Armstrong, we have been reminded about the courage of those astronauts who were part of the lunar programme in the sixties and seventies. We’ve re-lived the moments of the first landing, and heard of the tremendous effects on the personal lives of many of the astronauts.

One story which seems to me particularly relevant is the Commencement Address in 2005 which Armstrong gave to the University of Southern California. The full transcript is here: http://www.usc.edu/dept/pubrel/specialevents/commencement/documents/PastSpeeches-Armstrong.pdf

It is a brilliant address, full of inspiration for those lucky graduates of USC who will have been far too young to witness the events which brought fame to Armstrong, but who will nevertheless recognise instantly his name and accomplishments. The address contained the following paragraph:

What an important message: Graduation marks the start of continuous change and opportunity which will arise. I started to think about opportunity and graduates, and the following themes emerged:

1. Take it!
You will never know the outcome unless you take the opportunity. It might bring a positive change – great news! If the immediate outcome is negative, then at least you know and can close-off that particular avenue in the future. You never know when (if) it will ever present itself again, so take it when you can.

2. Confidence
When we try something new, take an opportunity, we learn something about ourselves. We learn that we’re actually much more resilient than we’d previously imagined. Trying something new – whether it results in success or failure – teaches us that we’re capable of surviving both. It gives us the confidence to take further opportunities in the future as our personal comfort zones expand.

3. Personal growth
Whether we succeed or fail, we grow from our endeavours. We usually learn more from our failures than our successes. Either way, opportunities deliver personal growth.

4. The effect on others
When those around us see us taking opportunities, growing in confidence, learning and becoming bigger people, we affect those around us. They see the change in us and feel encouraged to do the same themselves. It also becomes an invitation to give us more opportunity, to further stretch us.

5. It differentiates us
There are always people who will pass up every opportunity, and by taking it ourselves we differentiate ourselves from them. It sets us apart, and gives us an advantage.

6. It’s not just about being in the right place at the right time
Right place, right time can be hugely advantageous. But unless we do the right thing at that time, we’re passing up an opportunity. Entrepreneurs are the very embodiment of this – they actually do something with the opportunity when it arises.

7. Give others an opportunity
We owe it to others to provide opportunities wherever possible. It is important to create opportunities for others to learn, grow, stand out. Whether that is through work experience, a try-out of a sport or hobby, a job rotation or even a potential promotion, give others an opportunity – you never know what will result.

Neil Armstrong will forever be remembered for being the first man to set foot on the moon. Today he reminded me of the importance of opportunity.

Another use for the spirit of volunteering

The vast number of volunteers at London 2012 were widely praised for their contribution to the Games, and there are hopes that the volunteering spirit will continue long after the end of the Olympics and Paralympics. There seems to be a general recognition that many of the sports clubs which trained our Olympians relied on volunteers, and if we are to see more children grow and thrive in sport, then we owe it to them to volunteer our services.

I wonder whether the volunteering spirit could be extended beyond sport? The Scouts Association, for example, is always looking for volunteers and indeed the difficulty in finding them is a key reason for the huge waiting lists. It is said that many parents don’t want to volunteer their time to help with Scouts, Beavers etc because they value their time without their children. They look at it as a sort of low-cost childcare, where the children are well looked after, whilst the parents can have a peaceful time. Those parents leave it to others to entertain, engage and excite their children. I can imagine that the Scouts are likely to have an even bigger problem recruiting volunteers as people turn their attention to sports.

How about the post-Olympic volunteering spirit extending even further? Could we all share a little of our professional know-how with children? After-school talks; company open-days; bring-your-child-to-school days?

We don’t seem to have a problem with time. I wonder how many man-hours are spent at car-boot sales around the country every week, transferring old and unwanted “stuff” from one house to another – people traipsing from car to car in muddy fields, buying and selling semi-meaningless junk. I fully understand the value of re-cycling, up-cycling and even free-cycling, but it seems to me that it’s all about people doing (virtuous) things for personal gain, rather than doing something for others.

Many big corporations already have such activities as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility agenda. Small companies usually don’t have a CSR budget. But they would probably understand it better if it were re-labelled as “volunteering”.

Early influences start (really) early

It is staggering to think how many of the decisions we take are influenced by events early in our lives. I’m not thinking of those biological, pre-birth influences such as diet, activity levels and audio-stimulus. I’m rather thinking of the post-toddler childhood and early school years – a phase rich in external influences and events which captivate, excite, motivate, engage, enthuse – or the reverse.

It’s not difficult to see where those influences come from. We tend to engage more readily with other people who are having fun and enjoying life, so we subconsciously respond to their cues on what is fun and enjoyable, further reinforcing and perpetuating the messages. Young children are surrounded by others of a similar age, and it doesn’t take long for a new playground “craze”, for example, to sweep through schools as children convince each other how fun and exciting it is. The young influencers spread the word quickly as friends redefine what is fun or “cool” to do in the playground – until it is replaced by a new definition from a different source. And there are plenty of potential sources, from role-model super-heroes (real or imaginary) to cleverly-marketed ideas from the professionals.

It is noticeable how narrow the range of role-models is for these young children. The “real” variety tend to be high-profile celebrities (always in the news, and frequently a topic of conversation for parents); sportsmen (footballers are a common favourite); popstars or dancers; or sometimes children’s television presenters.

An obvious attraction of these role-models for young people is that it’s easy to see what they actually “do” – they appear on the television or in shiny magazines; they play football; they sing or dance; they present funny or interesting things on the television. Most of these things are easily identifiable to even young children. Money is unlikely to be a motivator at this early age; the ease with which they can be identified, and the sense of fun is more likely to be the motivator.

There are pockets of special cases – the vet who cures a sick family pet; the kind baker who always pulls a coin from inside a child’s ear; the hairdresser who always gives a lolly after a haircut – people who somehow make a mark on a child for some reason, and for a while they unwittingly guide a child in the direction of that particular profession. These special cases are generally fewer and further apart than the earlier high-profile examples, and they don’t create as lasting an effect.

How many parents talk to their young children about their own profession; about what they do at work every day? Is it any wonder that children grow up wanting to be footballers, pop-stars or celebrities rather than accountants, solicitors, scientists or consultants? Isn’t it time we started to excite our own children about what we do? Not as encouragement to do the same, but just so that they understand the range of choices open to them. London 2012 has created a new group of Olympians who will undoubtedly inspire and encourage many to start a new sport. There are occasionally huge news stories which create an interest in a new field and inspire a generation – Man landing on the Moon; Curiosity landing on Mars; the development of Concorde; invention of wireless telegraphy. But we could do so much more to inspire the youth of today by looking around us now and engaging with them, rather than waiting for world events to do it for us.

The examples I used above were natural for me to choose – based on science and technology, they were early influences in my life. The Vietnam War; The Arab-Israeli Conflict; The Suez Crisis could just as easily have inspired me but I had already made subconscious decisions earlier in my life, and those major world events didn’t interest me.

For me, it could have all been so different (not necessarily better or worse, but different) had I been exposed to different influences. I might still have made the same life choices in the end, but I might have done that whilst being better informed. And being better informed is probably a good thing.

 

A big day for students

Today is the day when hundreds of thousands of A-level students get their exam results. All across the country they are variously terrified, shocked, delighted, surprised, thrilled, incredulous and disappointed. For some it is simply another milestone reached exactly as expected, on their journey into a career. For others it is certainly a milestone… but perhaps “turning point” would be a more accurate description.

For many students, today marks the end of their dream. Failure to achieve the required exam results means that they cannot progress to their chosen university. It might mean re-sitting exams next year; it might mean going to a different university to read something completely different; it might mean a complete change of tack, and not going to university at all. In most of these instances, students will regard today as a setback, and for some they will feel it is the end of the world, a dream completely shattered. It may indeed be a major setback, but humans are remarkably resilient. Setbacks become opportunities, which become new dreams and new challenges. Over time, expectations change as those new dreams take shape and come to life. What once seemed like the end of the world will soon be just a turning point.

It is easy for wise heads to look back and see many turning points in their own lives – times  at which something significant happened. Maybe a birth, death or marriage; or a job change or sudden opportunity overseas. As we become older and more experienced, we see how these instances present “timeouts” – opportunities to reflect and react. Younger people don’t have that experience, and are not as capable at handling timeouts. After all, apart from deciding which subjects to study, students generally don’t have to make many “really big” decisions before they leave school. They might not agree that today’s results merely mark a turning point, and they will need a great deal of support from friends and family. The quality of that support is likely to be just as important to them as everything they’ve done for themselves until now. It is likely to be a key part of their short-term recovery and longer-term transition to a new dream.

The press will quote pass-rate statistics throughout the days and weeks which follow, explaining how it is all much easier today than it was twenty years ago. Whether they are right or wrong, it is all completely irrelevant to those students. The lucky ones don’t care – their dream continues; the unlucky ones don’t care – they need a new dream. And support.

Inspiration from London 2012

In an earlier post, I wondered what London 2012 would provide in terms of memorable moments – broken records, outstanding achievements, personal stories and inspiration to us all.  At that time, I anticipated that there would be some surprises but I completely underestimated the scale of what it would bring.

On two separate occasions GB medal-winners encouraged others to “go for it” and live the dream, along the lines of “I’m just an ordinary girl; if I can do it, anyone can“.

Helen Glover and Heather Stanning won gold medal in the women’s pair
Great Britain has an excellent record in rowing, so it was quite likely that some medals would come from the rowing events.  But the remarkable thing is that Helen only started rowing in 2008 and was motivated by watching the GB team winning in Beijing. She was selected to take part in the Sporting Giants scheme, an initiative from Sir Steve Redgrave.
“I remember sitting in a room in Bisham Abbey [the National Sports Centre] and someone saying: ‘A gold medallist in 2012 could be sat in this room. Look around you’. I thought: ‘Right, I’m going to make that me.’ It was quite surreal.”
Immediately after winning the gold, exhausted and breathing heavily she said “I hope my story can be an inspiration for kids in PE or at home thinking about taking up a new sport. Just go on, go for it – you don’t know what’s going to happen”.

She was originally motivated enough to think “I can do that” in response to watching others win gold, and spent the next four years proving that she could. And then she encouraged others to follow her. Totally inspiring.

Samantha Murray won silver in the modern pentathlon
Asked immediately after her final race what she was doing four years ago, she said she was doing her A-levels, having started pentathlon, but she wasn’t competing at a senior level.  As a child she had wanted to be an Olympian, and at the age of 12 had put a poster on her bedroom wall of pentathlon gold-medallist Steph Cook at the Sydney Olympics.
“Honestly, if you have a goal – if there’s anything you want to achieve in life – don’t let anybody get in your way. You can do it. If I can do it, and I’m a normal girl, anyone can do what they want to do”. Again, totally inspiring. I wonder how many posters of Sam will adorn bedroom walls of future Olympians.

I suspect that many of us will immediately think to ourselves “but you’re absolutely not an ‘ordinary girl’, you’re exceptional”, and we’d be right – they are exceptional. In one important respect, they are more exceptional than the rest of us… they believe in themselves.

As these ‘ordinary girls’ showed, achieving great things always involves getting over the first hurdle – believing in ourselves. It might not be the hardest part, but it is surely the most important.