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  • Writer's picturePhilip J Connolly

The Purple (Disability) Planet: The DRN Invitation and Challenge to the BBC

David Attenborough was once asked, what gave him hope. He replied "the indomitable spirit of humans and the resilience of nature." David you have filled us with awe for the resilience of nature. The fire lily, a plant that germinates every 15 years in response to the smoke from a major bush fire - wow. David I ask if we might make a programme on the indomitable nature of so many disabled people. A programme that doesn't say the usual "Didn't he do well climbing Kilamanjaro on his knees, isn't he marvellous" or isn't she wonderful raising all that money for charity" but a programme that examines what disability teaches us about the human condition.

Studies of the natural world have led us to thinking of two types of resilience. One type is the time taken for a system to return to equilibrium - stability - following a disturbance. Another type is the amount of disturbance a system can absorb before changing to another stable system. This gives rise to two definitions: 1) the magnitude of disturbance that can be absorbed before the system changes its structure by changing the variables and processes that control behaviour and 2) the capacity of a system to experience shocks while retaining the same structure, function, feedback and therefore identity. Both these definitions can be measured. Every human being has a quotient of resilience but it maybe that it is disabled people who are tested the most, sometimes every day, often through discrimination.

David your programmes offer the unique as a common experience, the invisible as visible, you educate us without teaching us and make painstaking stakeouts appear effortless. The purple planet can do all this and for good reason too. Disability has been framed as a story of loss but it is just as much, like your programmes, a study of adaptation. Here below are some possible scenes for the "Purple Planet" series 1.

Rwanda. In 1994 nearly a million died in a tribal conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsi's that was on such a scale as to be genocide. The resilience of child survivors in response to trauma was examined in child headed households. Thomson (

The community based mental health interventions implemented have been documented as being beneficial to Rwanda's response to Ebola and Covid -19 diseases. Always with resilience, the question is not simply how are we for surviving the expected shock but how are we for being ready for the shock after that?

Community based interventions make the invisible institution provided care visible and help reduce the stigma for example Leprosy. In India segregated care is being successfully replaced with community based multi drug treatments for Leprosy. Laws requiring separation are being superseded by good and better practice. In 2019 it was no longer the case that one person could automatically divorce another because they had Leprosy. Even the stigma of having Leprosy is maybe like the disease itself, set to be eliminated.

Humans can take extraordinary evasive action to avoid death for example due to extreme cold. Reports have circulated of one Japanese man marooned outdoors emulating hibernating animals. For every one degree reduction in body temperature human metabolism requires 5% to 7% less oxygen. The University MEdical Centre at Groeningen has been studying hibernation's secrets and whether it is a realistic defence mechanism against serious injuries. The BBC reported on it as long ago as 2014.

Disability can reveal other skills as the challenge to find adaptation or a coping mechanism, makes the previously unthinkable the more realistic one. It is likely that humans have always had the skill of echolocation but the first documentation of this skill being deployed by some blind people wasn't until 1959. One online report of a UK blind child described how he used clicks from his own mouth and the subsequent echo to determine the size of objects and how far they were from him. Some blind people are able to use echolocation as an aide to navigation.

The questions arise - how common are these abilities, are they available to all who practice them or just to those in particular circumstances.? They also lead us to ask whether disability is not simply an end point to what you used to be able to do but a new frontier for the mind and body.

At present the science of evolutionary development is in its infancy but we do know all life is based upon complex relationships between the cells formed first and the ones that come next and are dependent upon them. The new cells know how they relate: our fingers and toes sequentially follow the growth of our limbs. Thus it maybe that we all have a natural capacity for change. We are highly resilient but resilience is like sustainability, it needs supporting.

The Disability Resilience Network is going local. We are meeting at the offices of Voluntary Action Leeds from 1 pm to 4pm on February 9th UK time. Join us in person or remotely. Fill in the free membership form at and make your support visible.


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