Disability Rights UK vision is one of disabled people participating fully as citizens in our society. That participation can occur at many levels. Our vision drives us to campaign for all new and existing organisations (including the state itself) to actively seek disabled people’s participation and inclusion. However since we at DR UK also believe that disabled people can lead the change themselves I offer my thoughts on how disabled people can develop their own connected and inter-connected communities.
The bonds that underpin access in the broadest sense
Strong ties like the forces that bind hydrogen to oxygen atoms create the molecules in water but it is the weak ties between the hydrogen atoms that makes water a liquid and in turn sustain life. In a similar way it is the strength of weak ties that is often critical in successfully obtaining work. A tie is an information carrying connection between people and a weak tie is defined by having contact with someone more than once a year but less than twice a week. In a famous study from 1970 by Dr Granovetter these weak ties were responsible for 56% of the jobs obtained by 100 people he personally interviewed from the 282 he surveyed (1).
Value of peer to peer support
Peer to peer support occurs when people provide knowledge, experience, emotional, social or practical support to each other. It has been documented to have benefits for people with a wide range of health conditions including mental health, diabetes, trauma, limb loss and sight loss. In 2009 the Blind Veterans Association of the United States launched "Operation Peer Support." The focus is upon giving blinded veterans access to new tools and resources so that they can adapt and establish new life goals. Disability Rights UK are strategic partners with the “Shaping Our Lives” coalition and are pressing for the NHS to deliver peer to peer support as part of mainstream commissioning (2). This is a natural extension to NHS initiatives already committed to such as the expert patient programme pioneered by Dr Kate Lorig (3). The expert patient programme utilises the experience of “patient leaders” to effectively support those with newly acquired conditions to maintain their medical regime and adopt healthy lifestyles.
Exchange systems embed the social nature of ties and peer to peer networks. They also build upon the idea that people have assets or qualities that are valuable to other people and that trading them can help people to connect in a social way with other people and in doing so enable them to gain access to other resources. These assets may be tangible such as trading the use of an item of equipment that a person possess but only uses occasionally or practical skills or qualities such as time. Sometimes these exchanges may be purely performed as gifts and exchange systems exist to facilitate the giving whereas sometimes these exchanges are conducted whereby the person giving earns a credit and the person receiving a debit and the exchange is conducted in what is called a complementary money system i.e. not in the official or normal currency of the country.
Types of exchange systems - the gift economy
There are many types of gifting that are well established and understood. These include Wikipedia that shares knowledge, filesharing such as Napster that shares media content, open source software that shares software development such as the Linux community and freecycle that sets up gifting circles and currently has nearly ten million members spread over 5000 groups worldwide. There are several ways to join the gift economy and quite possibly in your own area visit http://justfortheloveofit.org/ to share skills and assets you have or want. Skill sharing is also promoted through http://www.freeskilling.org.uk so that a person can acquire skills one week and then pass them onto someone else the next. At http://www.ilovefreegle.org/ you can become a giver yourself and give things away or "freegle" them. The "freegle" community has nearly one a half million members spread across 380 groups in the UK.
Exchange systems that value time
In timebanking people earn a credit by giving an hour or more of then their time to complete a useful activity for someone else and can use the credit to obtain an hour of someone else s time to fulfill a need of their own. The participants decide what can be traded and usually a catalogue or electronic directory makes the offers known. In "timebanking" everyone’s time is as valuable as everyone else’s so all participants trade on an equal basis. Timebanking rests on the principle of co-production whereby people are recognized as having resources that others value and need e.g. experience, caring, learning, socializing and that the exchange allows people within community to find many of the answers to their own problems. Visit http://www.timebanking.org/about/about-coproduction/ to learn more.
Exchange systems that use complementary currencies
Some exchange systems use a complementary currency i.e. not sterling, to enable people to barter without cash; examples include Local Exchange and Trading Scheme (LETS) such as the Brixton pound. Some local shops and businesses will accept these currencies and thus allow people to access resources beyond those that they have the means to pay in the national currency for. Businesses also benefit by gaining access to services for which they cannot get the credit to purchase. It is not simply the case that these currencies only exist in deprived neighbourhoods or bohemian communities; one of the most celebrated and evaluated is the WIR which has existed for more than sixty years in Switzerland. Sixteen businesses started the WIR as a mutual credit system. A debt in WIR is either reimbursed by bartering in sales with someone else in the network or paid in full with the national currency. Over time the network has expanded to include a quarter of all the businesses in Switzerland. There are thought by LETS UK to be some 300 LTE schemes in the UK with some 30,000 participants. A best practice guide on how to set up and maintain LET scheme can be found at http://www.letslinkuk.net/practice/best-practice.htm
Building upon exchange systems to promote shared consumption
Shared consumption works on the idea that sharing the ownership rather than every individual owning the same item realizes economies for individuals and reduces the environmental impacts of mass consumption. People on low or fixed incomes stand to gain from ways of living that require less capital outlay for goods whether it is a family car or a lawnmower or allows for savings by utilizing the power of group purchasing. Disabled people could share specialist equipment and rent or donate the use of it so that others could benefit who cannot afford the initial outlay (4).
Value of exchange schemes to those moving from benefits into work
Disabled people could opt to form or join exchange schemes to: 1) make state benefits stretch further, 2) gain access through increased social networks to information on job opportunities and 3) become providers of skills, assets or time themselves and thus establish or reinforce new identities as agencies of development themselves.
Robert Putnam in his famous study of social capital (5) scientifically documented the dividend for society in terms of health, the economy, crime etc from stronger social relationships – social capital. He contrasted bonding social capital (connections within a community) and bridging social capital (connections across communities) and provided us with the evidence for why we need to create the infrastructure for it to happen. In the future connected communities of disabled people inter-connecting with the rest of society will exert a powerful influence on the shaping of both the private and public sectors. This is because just as Tesla’s experiments led to the national grid and allowed electricity to flow to further even more scientific developments so can the largely untapped creative energy of disabled people flow through these connections to those who will then be inspired to co-produce with them a new generation of fully accessible products and services. Our task is to co–create the infrastructure, the good news is that a lot of it already exists.
- "Getting A Job: A Study of Contacts and Careers." Granovetter M, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University. 1974
- "Bowling Alone" Putnam R, Schuster and Simon, 2000