The Dark Side of Social Capital

I was invited to participate in a Convocation at the University of Northern Colorado in the Rehabilitation Department. They asked me to focus my remarks around ethics and while preparing I found an article that focused on the dark side of social capital. Now we know that social capital, or relationships in our lives, promote amazing positive effects among people. In fact, the ethical ramifications have been clearly documented by sociologists.

But the article I found suggested that along with the positive effects, social capital can have a dark side. Top among them is the exclusion that can happen to people not considered members of the tribe. That is, the strong bonding that can happen between like people, can also result in painful exclusion of others. This can also lead to distrust, lack of cooperation and intolerance.

In our current era where nationalism and anti-immigration policies are promoted certainly can bait the darker side of social capital. In fact, the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented the rise of hate groups, and we are seeing more and more assaults on ethnic, religious, and immigrant groups. Quite simply, the bonding nature of some things can lead to a real sense of exclusion of others.

To this end, social capital alone will not create greater ethical behaviors. Rather, the critical values that are associated with ethics are equally important in the relationship perspective. We must come to realize that social capital is so much more potent when it is coupled with strong inclusion values.

Friends and Family

Often, when we talk about social capital, the best reference point is to think about friends and family.  In fact, a common approach for people to understand the essence of social capital is to identify our friends and family within the context of community.  That is, we ask people to think about the various communities they participate in and to identify the people they are acquainted with, people they are friends with then finally, identify those that they deeply trust in that community.  This type of sociogram paints a portrait of ones social capital and is a good way to understand this human dynamic.  It creates a nice template to study or actually measure our relationships. 

In thinking about social capital it is interesting to consider friends and family.  Our friends are often freely chosen and they represent our intentional social capital; that is, these are the people that we feel fit into some frame of our lives.  Through regularity and similarity, we come to develop these connections and can even elevate some people to “best friend” status. These relationships take work , however and if we find these friends beginning to drift from the things we feel are important, the friendship often can easily decline or end.

Family relationships are more tedious.  We are thrust together with these people during family events and the key similarity is often the family blood we share.  If they begin to drift, or a rift unfolds, these relationships are harder to adjust or end.  Even if we feel distant, our overall family ties keep these folks in our orbit.  In a way, you have to work harder with family than with friends.  If a family relationship goes sour, you must work harder to right the ship.  With non-blood connections, if things go south it is fairly easy to just walk away. 

All social capital makes life more interesting.  In fact, our social capital influences our health, happiness, self confidence, achievement, and even our life expectancy.  More relationships lessen stress and help us resolve problems and issues that arise.  Yet, the maintenance and nurturing of our social capital can be very different between our family and our friends.

As the cliche goes, you can choose your friends, but can’t chose your family!

San Miguel de Allende - Hope for a Better World

I am writing this blog from from a Casa terrace in the beautiful Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende. The town is situated in the geographic center of Mexico and we are here for the nuptials of our son Santino and his fiance, Valentina. They met 10 years ago in Paris, while both in college, and fell in love. During their relationship, in the many countries they have visited, San Miguel stood out and they decided to have their wedding here.

It is my high honor to officiate their wedding and this is the first time we have gotten to meet Valentina’s beautiful family. They hail from Columbia and we have had a wonderful time getting to know them; in itself a wonderful turn of events, but this blog is really about Santino and Valentina, who are truly citizens of the world.

Often you hear horror stories about millennial’s and how they are selfish and often non-committal. Certainly this is true for some people; and in fact, can be true for people in all generations. Yet, this is not the case for Santino and Valentina. They are hard working in their respective careers, and deeply inquisitive about people and cultures. In their time together they have visited over 30 different countries around the world and have amassed a penchant for curiosity. They embrace a respect for diversity and truly see a world where people can love and respect each other.

In this conservative era of nationalism and tribalism, Santino and Valentina are models for another spirit - one of human kinship regardless of difference. As the torch gets passed to the next generation, Santino, Valentina, and their many friends that have gathered in San Miguel, will demand a more open perspective. One of brotherhood and respect, regardless of any differences people might have. In their world we won’t be divided by walls and fears, but aligned by a deep-seeded respect and appreciation for all.

This weekend has renewed my hope for a better world.

Partners in Policy-Making: An Initiative that Works

In my over 50 years as a professional disability advocate, I have been involved in more initiatives than I can count.  Many of these I either help developed and many others that were developed by other colleagues and i was invited to play a role. 

All of these initiatives have had an impact, but some were (and are) more powerful than others.  We know that parity for individuals with disabilities and their families is a long hard climb and that we still have a long way to go, but there is one initiative, that was conceived by the Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities in MN, that has stood the test of time and continues to make an incredible impact - and that is the Partners in Policy-Making effort, developed in 1987.

The PIP initiative has made such an impact because it has been adopted by 35 states and has spread to many international settings.  It is designed to introduce families who have children with disabilities, and self-advocates (individuals experiencing disabilities) to the myriad of programs, projects, and policies that impact the disability experience.

I have had the great pleasure to participate in the PIP programs for many years now, in many states.  In just the last 6 months I have been involved in PIP programs in TX, NM, DE, OK, FL and LA, looking at the importance of understanding community aspects, and the key ingredient of social capital (relationships) in our communities.  In all of these experiences I am so taken by the power and wisdom of the families and self-advocates that I meet.

But at the heart of the potency of this initiative, is the transition that unfolds for the Partners who attend.  Most family members and self-advocates sign up for this free program because they want things better for their son/daughter in the community - in itself a laudable goal.  But over time (the PIP program is usually over 6 to 9 weekends each month), most of these advocates broaden their perspective, and become an advocate for all devalued people.  This shift from micro (an individual perspective), to macro (a community perspective) is so satisfying to see.

Because in the end, a full and inclusive community is about us all - and this is the end lesson of Partners in Policy-making.  So if you are (or know) a family who is experiencing disability, check to see if there is a PIP program in your state.  If not, inquire with your Developmental Disability Council to see if they can develop a program.  It is a disability initiative that works.

The Impact of Oldies

Years ago, while in high school, I connected with my friend, John Pastin, and we formed a band.  John, even in those early years, was an amazing sax player, and when he invited me to play bass in a band he was forming, I jumped at the chance.  I relied on my dad, a trained bassist, to teach me the fundamentals, and was off to the music races with John.  Throughout high school and college we played weekly at parties, weddings, in clubs and the like.  As kids, we were making good money, but more, we were having a fantastic time. 

As John’s musical talents grew he decided to maximize opportunities and joined the US Navy music program.  I decided to focus attention on my work as a social psychologist and our paths moved in different directions.  John went on to an extensive career in the Navy band, collecting a BA, MA, and doctorate along the way.  He played, conducted, orchestrated and entertained folks all over the world, from presidents to prime ministers.  Then, when he left the Navy, as the director of the Navy Band, he went on to Rowan University to teach music, rising to become Dean of the School of Performing Arts.  An amazing ride!

And I began to devote myself to disability advocacy, getting my BA, MSW and doctorate in social psychology, becoming associated with the nonprofit organization, CLASS.  In my 47 years there I had opportunity to teach, write, research and ultimately became the CEO.

In all these years, John and I and our families have stayed closely aligned, enjoying vacations, travel, celebrating milestones of our children and extended families.  We are lifelong friends.

When John retired from Rowan University, he and Arleen returned to Pittsburgh and in his first trip back, he brought me a bass guitar and stated,  “we were going to get the band back together.”  Now I hadn’t touched the bass since my early college days, but it is difficult to say no to John.  So with his tutoring, and indulgence, I started to resume my bass playing.

So now, with John’s musical genius, we have launched a 2 man “Oldies” group we are calling the “DooWop Doctors.”  We have developed a repertoire of oldies and classic songs from years gone by, and what fun we have been having.

So if you are in the Pittsburgh area, and have a penchant for the “oldies,” keep your eyes out for the “DooWop Doctors.”  You will find living example that old dogs can learn new tricks.  Shoobydowopwawa!

The Soul of America

I am reading an intriguing book, “The Soul of America,” by Jon Meacham. I am a fan of Meacham, having read most of his other works. This book is an overview of American leadership, mostly from our Presidents, as we battle to find our better angels, which is the subtitle of the book.

In it, Meacham explores some of the racism and extremism that have influenced our politics as we strive to form a more perfect union. As an astute historian, he looks back at past leadership and explores how their approach to government influenced the public dialogue and either moved the country forward or dragged it back a few steps.

One section that jumped out at me, and is currently in our public square is the juxtaposition between the politics of fear, versus the politics of hope. He states:

“Those who are frightened of losing what they have are the most vulnerable to fear, and it is difficult to be clear-headed when you believe that you are teetering on a precipice…….The opposite of fear is hope, defined as the expectation of good fortune not only for ourselves but for the group to which we belong. Fear feeds anxiety and produces anger; hope, particularly in a political sense, breeds optimism and feelings of well-being. Fear is about limits, hope is about growth. Fear casts its eyes warily, even shiftily, across the landscape; hope looks forward, toward the horizon. Fear points at others, assigning blame, hope points ahead, working for a common good. Fear pushes away; hope pulls others closer. Fear divides, hope unifies.”

In a summary of how hope and fear have been put into play by political leaders Meacham states:

“The measure of our political and cultural health cannot be whether we agree on all things at all times. We don’t, and won’t. Disagreement and debate-including ferocious disagreement and exhausting debate-are hallmarks of American politics. As Jefferson noted, divisions of opinions have defined free societies since the days of Greece and Rome. The art of politics lies in the manufacturing of a workable consensus for a given time-not unanimity. This is an art, not a science.”

There is no question that our current political leadership have been using fear as they govern. Meacham points out that no great political perspectives have ever advanced the collective good with these tactics. The shift from fear to hope looks to be the critical path as America looks to build a more perfect union.


After 47 years at my agency, I decided to step aside from my administrative responsibilities and move on as a consultant and special adviser. Initially this decision was difficult as my involvement with CLASS has been a natural and integral part of my life for so many years.. It was hard to imagine anything else. But as I got closer to the transition date, Jan 1, 2019, my decision became easier and easier to accept.

In the month of December, I began to go through all of my files and clean out my office. As I went through files dating back to 1973 I was flooded with incredible memories. In fact, I found a journal that i kept from 1973 to 1976 and was written in a personal diary format. It captured not just people and meetings, but my innocent reflections about these people and meetings. The vernacular was vintage 1970 as I reported that I “rapped” with people about opportunities for folks with disabilities in the community.

I found other files and photos of people and topics from time gone by, but throughout all of these materials was a common theme of inclusion, participation and engagement in the community for people who have been devalued or marginalized - a challenge we deal with to this day.

Over the past few weeks there have been receptions and gatherings for me, all that I found to be awkward as I am not one to wave my flag. Certainly, I have been appreciative of these receptions, and so taken by the kind comments and remarks - but still recognize that such a macro journey is not shaped by one person alone. Rather, it is the joint efforts and energy that are at the core of change. I have merely been happy to have been a part of the journey.

And, I am not done yet! By moving from my role at CLASS, I am now liberated with time and new energy to continue the journey. I now have time to work on a new book with my daughter and her partner; I am now able to participate in projects with other organizations; I can increase the training and speaking that I have enjoyed doing; and have really been excited about the new research that I can do with other folks around the world. These are all exciting projects.

So, in a way, this blog post is a humble thank you to all the amazing people I have had the pleasure of working with in this journey. And maybe more, it is an invitation to others to possibly work together in the future. Can’t wait to see you down the path!

Social Determinents and Success

I was driving to work the other day and heard a really interesting report on NPR.  (In fact, as a side piece, I can’t tell you how valuable NPR radio is for being informed.  If you are not a member, you should think about joining and listening more often).  This report was looking at school success and interviewing some parents who were shopping around to find the most successful school for their children.  The reporter talked about how there are now reviewing sites on line, much like Yelp and others that rate schools following mostly consumer reactions. 

What caught my attention was when the reporter then shifted his interview to some experts in education they balked a bit on this reviewing process.  They said that you can’t gauge a school like you might gauge a hotel room. That schools are more like ecosystems that are complex and difficult to measure in a simple review process.  Then he said that the more important variable for school success are the connections and relationships that are formed. 

These so called “social determinents” are showing up more and more as a key factor for success.  Certainly now in health care, reseearchers are clear that the social determinents of connections and relationships are at the bottom of more successful health outcomes.  In fact, these social determinents also include housing, food security, transportation and the like. 

We are discovering that when people are in better social situations their chance for success is greatly enhanced, regardless of the agenda of the platform.  As a long time CEO of a nonprofit organization, I have come to learn that when folks who work for us have greater access to social aspects we seem to do better as an organization.   

So think a bit more of the social determinents of your life.  Perhaps more success can be found through social connections. 

Community and Diversity

The concept of community is a really powerful element in our lives. Quite literally it means “with togetherness” and it does more for us than we tend to give credit. Some anthropologists suggest that community is the primary reason why human beings have not only survived, but thrived as a species. Certainly as an animal, humans lack many of the acute skills and abilities of physicality to succeed on our own and so by sharing, collaborating, and cooperating everyone does better. This is the history of human success.

Think about it; in spite of our individual skills or abilities, anyone of us who have experienced success have not realized this totally on our own. Our success is a compilation of people, and experiences with other people that have informed, inspired, challenged, or cajoled us into performance or activity that lead to the success we have enjoyed. From our parents to teachers, to coaches, to friends, to allies, life is riddled with relationships that have made us better people.

It is this reality that has driven social scientists to come to the conclusion that life success is promoted, not just by our individual skills, but more by the social capital we have developed around us. Today researchers are convinced that all good things of life, health, happiness, advancement, achievement and even life expectancy, are directly related to social capital.

More, we also know through research and study that the more diverse our social capital, the more we grow or broaden in our perspectives of self and life. Quite simply, when we build a relationship with someone who has some differences from us, we become more tolerant and willing to accept, or even respect their differences from us. This is an important, maybe even magical phenomenon because we also know that when people have or experienced key elements of difference, they are at risk of societal segregation or devaluation. The antidote for devaluation is to be included in the bigger mix, and so with an inclusive agenda for community, we have an interesting and powerful paradox.

To this end, diversity in community becomes an important variable in promoting a better, more successful collections of people. That is, when people who have some significant difference from each other (age, race, lifestyle, disability, poverty, etc.) come together around things they have in common, good things happen for everyone. In this regard, inclusive community should become a goal for all of us.

Consistency a Key Ingredient for Success

I am a big fan of Simon Sinek, the leadership consultant.  I have read most of his books, and watched his many You Tube videos and TED talk.  His focus on leadership is simple and has been widely adopted. You would do well to check him out.

Recently, while on LinkedIn, I came across a recent Sinek video that I had not seen before.  It features Simon in an interview format, talking about key features of successful leadership.  His major point is that there is no magic wand in becoming a leader.  Rather it is many small acts that are consistent over time.  This notion of consistency, however, does not just apply to leadership, but has impact just about everywhere. 

To nail this point, he asks the interviewer if he has someone in his life that he loves.  When the interviewer says yes, Sinek asks how he knows this, and when did it happen.  In the end his point is that love doesn’t just happen, but is based on many small things consistent over time.  Same too with fitness.  If you consider yourself fit, when did this happen?  Was there one thing that occurred, or that you tried, that deemed you to be fit?  Probably not; rather, it was your consistent commitment to fitness that carried the day. 

Yet, at the core of consistency is the notion of discipline.  That is, in order to be consistent, you have to be disciplined to your cause.  With fitness, it is having the discipline to be regular at the gym.  In relationships, it is the discipline to stay aware and focused on the other person.  And in leadership, it is remaining consistent with the important features associated with successful people skills.

Of course there are other important issues that apply to successful leadership, or fitness, or in relationships. Still, the notion of consistency really matters, and when we keep this in mind, or more, when we consistently apply key factors we are bound to incur greater success in life. 

Three Key Ingredients for Social Capital

if you have followed this blog you know the power and potency off social capital.  The benefits of relationships have been so well documented.  It (Social Capital) makes us healthier, happier, more self confident, achieve more, advance more, and even live longer.  

So the big question I always get when I do workshops or presentations on social capital is, “how do we build more (and better) connections.”  Of course there is no exact formula for social capital, but there seems to be 3 key ingredients that we can think about, apply, or help others understand.  These are: 

1. Similarities we have with others - Sociologists call this “bridging” as the things we have in common create a bridge between people. 

2. Finding the social setting where the similar interests are exchanged - This is referred to as the social infrastructure that allows the two people a place to exchange. 

3. Assuring a regularity of exchange - This frequency of exchange begins to strengthen and validate the emerging relationship. 

Certainly building relationships is not a simple thing, but by understanding the moving parts we can be a better handle on elements that are critical.  Regardless, be aware of the dynamics of relationships and you will find yourself in a better place in building and strengthening these connections.  

In Friends Homes

In looking at the impact of social capital, sociologists have turned to a number of indicators that demonstrate a deeper connection with people.  Of course, one area looks at activity patterns, frequency of attendance, and with whom you engage at these activities.  When we participate with friends in various community venues these relationships become stronger. 

Another indicator, however, that may even be deeper than outside activities, relates to folks homes that you have visited.  That is, when we enter someone’s home we move into space that is intimate to them.  It is space that they have set up that is specific to them and their lifestyles.  Having you join them is a more trusted gesture, one that is more intimate. 

Beyond this is when you invite people into your home, for whatever reason.  This, in a way, is a vulnerable act that opens you up to their assessment of you and your lifestyle.   There is a trust in this effort that signals a deeper connection with this person.

So think now about those friends (or neighbors) homes you have been in, or those friends who you have had in your home.  Recognize that these people hold a deeper place in your social capital network and play a more important role in your life.  These relationships reap more benefits and meaning to us and are ones we should work to nurture and grow. 

Music and Moods

Years ago, when I was a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work, we were required to prepare a Masters thesis.  At the time I was actively playing music and having gigs with my group was one way of paying the bills.  Given my interest in music, I decided to do my Masters thesis on music and moods.

The entire field of music therapy was just initiating and as a musician this notion interested me.  So I decided to marry the important elements of mood and perception with the impactful notion of music.  As an organizer I knew that getting people excited and willing to engage in action required more than just the cause.  It seemed that if music could be introduced into the environment it could have a subliminal effect on people getting more excited about an issue.

of course, today we know this relationship and music is used in many ways to either excite, or calm people.  Think about political rallies that reve up the audience with pulsating or message songs to get people not just excited, but willing to do the important campaign work. 

On an individual basis, music has similar impact.  I know for me I can hear a song that brings me back another place in time, with the song linked to a happy or sad notion.  This is amazing and potent power.  In fact I know people who must have their playlist up and running before they can do their daily workout.  Sort of like the theme to “Rocky” as he runs up the Philadelphia Art Museum steps.  Even Christmas music can put people into certain moods.

Music is multidimensional and has powerful effect.  All of our lives are better for it. 


The Sounds of Community

Everyone is aware of the horrible fires that travel decimated parts of California these past few weeks.  Out of control, they have ravaged the countryside and literally destroyed hundreds of homes and even entire cities and communities.  This has been a terrible disaster.

Recently in a news story the reporter said that the sounds of community had been silenced in many places in California. This phrase, “the sounds of community” got me to reflect on this very issue.  What are the sounds of community that surround most of our lives, that we often take for granted?

To me the sounds of community are: 

* Children’s laughter  

* The honking of horns from automobiles

* The conversation of friends

* The rasping of the winds

* The sounds of music drifting in the streets

* Church bells that may announce the hour change

* The echos of faint hellos or goodbyes

* The rumble of a motorcycle or truck

Community is one of those things in our lives that is simple, yet complex.  It is not something we often reflect on, but when we awaken to its impact, it becomes something that we can hardly live without.  We take the importance of community for granted and can become dulled to its critical impact it plays in our lives - until it might be lost. 

So take some time now to listen to the sounds of your community and work to preserve it.  Wadsworth once said, “Without friendship life can be a wilderness.”  He could have easily substituted or incorporated the word “community” into this quote. 

Lets all work to build community! 

IN Podcast

The Interdependence Network, was founded about 10 years ago by folks interested in macro/community change and over the years has grown into an international coalition.  It is comprised of professionals, self advocates and family members who long for a community where each belongs.  The group has hosted symposia, meetings, trainings, and resources all devoted to community change.

Recently, I am happy to report to you that the IN has now launched our podcast series, “Call Me Al,” and offers 30 minute interviews and/or discussions on important community ideas or experiences that might be helpful to you in the work you do in your own community.   

The podcasts are available on the IN website,, or at iTunes by searching “Call Me Al.”  Hope you have a chance to check us out.  Know too, if you have an idea or recommendation for an interview let us know. 


I was at a meeting the other day with some colleagues who run some major nonprofit human service agencies in the Western PA area. It is a group that meets each month for mutual support and to join hands to address common challenges.

We start each of our meetings with personal updates on what is new at our agencies and the colleagues can weigh in with thoughts or recommendations. When it came my turn for the update, I focused on the search process CLASS is taking to find the next CEO to step in when I retire from my administrative roles. After 45 years at CLASS, 27 as CEO, it is time to move on to new things.

When I finished my update one of my colleagues said it is not about being “retired,” but to become “rewired.” After thinking about it my colleague is right. As many of us “baby boomers” begin to step aside, many of us do not plan to check out. Given our experiences, backgrounds, and wisdom, the next step really is a rewiring - a chance to do more of what we feel destined to do.

Certainly for many of us who have been dedicated to our organizations and especially their causes, it is hard to step away - but the notion of rewiring to find new, and innovative ways to impact our world, is there for the taking.

I can’t wait for this next phase of my life!

Loneliness Kills

Commentators in our society, and around the world, are now awakening to an emerging issue that is more lethal than cancer, or heart disease - it is social isolation and loneliness. The evidence and, in some cases actions, are beginning to not only identify the issues, but recommend actions or solutions to address this specter.

Research and studies continue to mount and are compelling enough to promote actions. Consider the following issues:

  • Loneliness and emotional rejection affect the brain and body in measurable and alarming ways promoting stress and lowering immunity levels.

  • One lonely day extracts the same toll as smoking an entire pack of cigarettes.

  • Emotional rejection causes stress affecting health, producing more illness and heart attacks.

  • The UK has designated a Minister to address Loneliness, reporting to the Prime Minister on ways and means to lessen loneliness in their country.

  • Positive relationships (the opposite of loneliness) is right behind genetics in predicting positive health and advanced longevity.

  • Men are at greater risk to be lonely - especially elderly men.

  • The number one public health crisis is not cancer, obesity, or heart disease - it's loneliness.

  • As many people in North America die from loneliness as from all smoke related diseases annually.

  • Cigna Insurance company conducted a national study with over 20,000 Americans looking at loneliness and discovered that loneliness has increased in all major age cohorts, but the highest level was found to be the youngest respondents.

  • Smart phones were designed to connect us, but the reality is that they have isolated us more than ever.

  • In the US, the life expectancy levels have dropped for a third consecutive year.

We need to ponder these trends. We need to not only recognize these issues but begin to find ways and means to address this specter. Our lives virtually depend upon it.

The Key to The City

Each year, our organization, CLASS, hosts a “Community Hero Banquet” which is designed to celebrate folks who are building inclusive opportunities in our town of Pittsburgh.  The event is always an exciting evening where we highlight these amazing people and then give them an award.

This year’s event was wonderful with some unique folks getting the award.  As a surprise to me, however, my colleagues at CLASS were able to convince the Mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Paduto, to do a special award for me, given my upcoming retirement from CLASS.  Now Mayor Paduto and I are old friends, who have been working together for years, going back to his days as a legislative assistant to City Council in the early 80’s. When he then ran for a city council seat, it was in the district that directly represented our agency center.  Bill won that election and in his time as a Councilman, we collaborated on many important initiatives designed to make our city more inclusive and welcoming to people with disabilities.  He has been an amazing advocate for our city, and now, as Mayor, he continues to promote the elements of inclusivity for Pittsburgh.

At our dinner this year, he made a surprise visit and read a wonderful proclamation that singled me out and was very touching.  Over my 45 years at CLASS I have heard politicians give proclamations to deserving community members and was touched to be on the receiving side of this effort.

What bowled me over however, was that after he read the proclamation he paused, and reached for a large box with the seal of the City of Pittsburgh.  He opened the box and then gave me the highest civilian honor that one can get in our community - the Key to Pittsburgh.  He went on to say that I was only the 5th recipient of this most high honor in the history of our city.

I was literally speechless.  People who know me know that I am not one for awards or accolades.  I am a simple man trying to do what is right - to use whatever gifts I have been given to build something better for all of us.  And not just me - but trying to collect all of us to do whatever part we can in making for a better world.

I am humbled and honored to receive the key to our city, but more, to have aligned with forward thinking people who see the wisdom of a better commonwealth - one where the impact to one of us, is tied to the impact of all of us.

Lets continue, all of us, to change the world.

Family Engagement Patterns

One of the exciting aspects of my work at CLASS is to partner with organizations in trying to learn more about ways to help individuals or families find greater success in community.  One such partnership has been with Chatham University in Pittsburgh.  Over the past couple years Chatham and CLASS have been working on a Family Engagement Study where we compared and contrasted the engagement patterns of 50 families, 25 who have children with disability labels and 25 who have children without disabilities.  This study was further enhanced by including our partner agency in Brisbane Australia, Mamre Association, who mirrored this effort with 50 Australian families.

We are writing up our results now, but in both the US and Australia, we found that families who have children with disabilities engage less.  They don’t go out as often, and have less community exposure.  In a way this did not surprise us, but what did was the qualitative follow-up we did with the families who have children with disabilities.  We found 3 key reasons why these families engage less.

One reason was economics.  Quite simply, families with children who have disabilities have less discretionary money, and can’t afford to engage as much.  This is consistent with other studies that show clearly that disability is costly.  Medical appointments, equipment, therapies and the like take their economic toll.

The second reason reported was around logistics.  Figuring out all the details and planning for the things that might happen related to the disability are sometimes overwhelming.  I understand this in a personal way when my family were planning an outing with my dad, who had Parkinson’s.  We had to consider everything that might unfold and sometimes this would be so overwhelming that we would decide to just stay home.

Last, we discovered that families felt strong social stigma from others that they just didn’t feel welcome in the venue.  They reported eye rolls, people moving away, and other social indicators that they weren’t welcome.

In a way, recognizing these variables has a positive residue.  That is, we now have a target to go after in an effort to help all families engage.  The notions of economics, logistics, and social stigma are items we can develop some social approaches to change, though all 3 of these issues will not be easy to fully resolve. 

Still, knowing the challenge is the first step in creating a better world, one where all families might feel welcomed.  So what can you do in helping to make this happen?

Pro Social Behaviors

Sociologists who explore the temperament of culture often talk about the importance of pro-social behaviors. These are things like tolerance, respect, compassion, kindness and such - all things we crave as people and members of community. These are the things that make us feel good and included. They make us, and community, better places to live, work, and play. In fact, we all want to be a part of communities that manifest these pro-social behaviors.

We also know that these behaviors are associated with the social capital (relationships) in our life that spill into our communities. That is, we are more tolerant, respectful, kind, and compassionate with people we know, or have relationships with in our life. Often we treat these people better than we do strangers.

These behaviors are not only important to the primary health and impact of a community, but they have a secondary impact as well. That is, not only do we feel better when we are treated this way, but the secondary effect is that people observe these behaviors and will tend to mimic them. We know that positive behaviors beget positive responses in others - people who observe these positive gestures will tend to act this way as well. If you do something kind and respectful with another person, people who observe this will tend to be influenced to follow suit.

We have all seen commercials or advertising that show a person observing a kind act, and then acting kind with the next person they encounter. Sociological research has corroborated this phenomena again and again.

So what is the lesson here? One is that we should be conscious of how we treat others and strive to be more positive and pro-social in our efforts. Further, we should look to build more relationships with people to assure these behaviors continue. Vibrant and inclusive communities depend on it.