Some of you may be familiar with MagicEye images like the one above, and some of you may have already developed an ability to see what is hidden there. They’re called stereograms, and if you can break out of conventional ways of seeing to focus “differently”, a 3D image will emerge from the seeming visual chaos. The moment when one is first able to see an image like this is a happy and somewhat dramatic surprise, as if a secret world has suddenly opened up to us. It seems to me that disabilities can be like that, and that stubbornly persisting in looking at them in conventional ways deprives us of the opportunity to see and experience the beauty, talent, and potential that may be hidden there.
There are a few things that got me thinking about this. One was the terrific blog posting from Mr. Casey a few weeks back (The Advantages of AD(H)D). In it, he talks about an experience that caused him to “reinvent” his perception and experience of his own AD(H)D. He describes shifting his focus away from any limitations, instead conceptualizing his AD(H)D as a gift that provided him with a skill set that many others do not possess. In having the courage to think and focus differently, he was able to reveal to himself the gifts that were hidden beneath the label, and in doing so, re-invent his future, his life, and the attitudes of the people around him.
It also happens that right around the time I read Mr. Casey’s blog, I was also reading Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. It’s a book about “what happens when ordinary people confront powerful opponents of any kind, from armies and mighty warriors to disability, misfortune, and oppression”. Gladwell proposes that facing difficult challenges can produce greatness and beauty, and that being an underdog can change us in fundamental positive ways that we fail to appreciate.
In his chapter called “You Wouldn’t Wish Dyslexia on Your Child, or Would You?”, he suggests that dyslexia may in fact be what he calls a “desirable difficulty”. He cites a recent study which found that about one third of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs, innovators, and visionaries have dyslexia. Now, the conventional way of seeing this is that these are simply remarkable people who heroically “overcame” their disability to find success. But…”the second, more intriguing possibility is that they succeeded, in part, because of their disorder–that they learned something in their struggle that proved to be of enormous advantage.”
This advantage, as Gladwell sees it, comes in a number of forms. Dyslexics are forced to develop compensatory skills in order to survive. This kind of compensation learning, though much more challenging than conventional learning, can result in a brain that is hardwired to process information in profoundly different ways from the rest of us—ways that could provide distinct advantages in certain environments.
Secondly, people with dyslexia are often outliers, a common trait in successful entrepreneurs. They are able to think outside the box, to imagine things that others cannot (Walt Disney comes to mind), and to fearlessly challenge their own preconceptions. Further, they have the courage and willingness to take the kinds of social risks that are necessary to bring their ideas into the world. Gladwell suggests that when an ordinary person (David) spends a lifetime confronting dyslexia (Goliath), a skill set can be forged which turns out to be a significant advantage when harnessed in the right way, potentially resulting in something extraordinary.
Finally, in the middle of all of this reading, I heard an interview on CBC radio with an entrepreneur from Calgary, who was challenging the conventional notion that people with autism are unemployable. He felt that this perceived disability also brought with it a skill set that would make individuals who had it highly productive employees if placed in the right environment (The Autism Advantage). He knew that many people with autism are capable of intense focus, are comfortable with repetition, and have an incredible memory for detail – precisely the skill set that is in high demand in our rapidly evolving technology-based economy. So he trained potential employees, educated potential employers, and matched them up with tremendous success. In other words, he thought outside the box, looked at the situation with a different focus, and allowed the potential and opportunity hidden there to be revealed.
We encounter situations every day where our perceptions are blocked by old expectations, unless we make a conscious decision to challenge those perceptions and to see differently. Marcel Proust said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”. All of which is to say that, even when it comes to disabilities, when we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change. And just maybe…our society changes with them.
(The LDAWE has been recognizing potential in employees with a variety of disabilities for quite some time; read about it in Danielle Gignac’s blog article, Torn Post-It Notes).
Not everyone is able to see hidden stereogram images, and many of us can only see them with a bit of practice. Click here for 3D viewing instructions.