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  • Writer's picturePhilip J Connolly

Looking For a Black Swan

There are many legitimate influences on good policy making but one essential element is the asking of questions. If we ask better questions we might get better answers. If we ask more questions, we might make fewer assumptions. When we have enough answers we can building models. If we have a model, we may be more consistent as long as we don't make the model our master. Following the financial crisis many people for good reason questioned the model, the assumptions and the underlying questions. Nicholas Taleb was chief amongst these people. He gave us a route to thinking in the fourth quadrant. I applied his approach to rethinking disability theory and practice.

Firstly there are the known knowns, the facts we know that we know. In disability policy we know that disabled people experience measurable gaps in their levels of participation and their access to resources. Then there are the known unknowns. In disability policy this might for instance be the date at which almost everyone is disabled at present rates of increasing prevalence. Next comes the unknown knowns. These might be facts that we know exist, but other people, places or institutes possess them and not us. For some politicians this third quadrant might be full of the facts they don't want to know such as how the virus began. Finally, there is the fourth quadrant - the unknown unknowns or the things that we don't even know that we don't know.

Nicolas Taleb called his book, "The Black Swan" on account of the fact that these unknowns can be unpredictable, be of low probability but carry high risk and be the fact that changes all other facts. Taleb recounts how the world believed all swans were white until sailors went to Australia. A single sailor seeing a single black swan changed that fact for everyone. I found this thought exciting. I did't so much go on a wild goose chase as a mission to find my black swan. Could the black swan fact be that non-disabled people gained some advantage from disabled people? Could it be that disabled people had an experience from which new insights into the human condition would emerge? Could there be a single fact that could change attitudes towards disabled people? Had we been limiting ourselves by looking for equality if there was an attribute that we could evidence that delivered something transcendent - equality plus?

I began to innovate. I ran a competition at RNIB called "Blind bit of difference" to draw in entrepreneurial ideas on job creation. I established a mobile digital fabrication laboratory whilst at Disability Rights UK to support disabled people becoming makers and for makers thinking of accessibility. I initiated a project on social value to make investment in infrastructure socially responsible and start a quest to find the infrastructure that would accelerate inclusion. Social value should be the means of bursting the envelope of employment support funding for disabled people. At LCD I began to collaborate with organisations like Nimbus in Derby and Innovate UK to get a foothold on the future. I formed the Disability Resilience Network (DRN) in response to the need to tell a better story on disability. I rationalised I might have Parkinsons disease, but I could still aim to be the best person I could be at whatever stage I was going to degenerate to. Sure, we the DRN wanted an adequate level of benefits income for all in need but even more than that we wanted an inclusive economy. There has to be a better fight to be had so no one has to die in the trenches of welfare reform.

No one ever does it on their own. Neither did I. I was given encouragement. I pass this on. I give you encouragement too. How much change do you want? You can have it with us. Go to fill in and submit the membership form that is there.


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