19 October 2019

The label goes on the responsibility

So for just years now I've been very uneasy about the taxonomy approach to "we're implicitly enforcing a prescriptive norm and should stop" social problems, but all the explanations for why this isn't going to work (from the perspective of anybody who can't fake the norm) need a patient listener, twenty minutes, and a white board.

That doesn't much resemble helpful.

So -- when you say someone is disabled, or has special needs, or come up with a vast nuanced taxonomy of gender or orientation, the labels are being applied to specify distance from the prescriptive norm.

(It is prescriptive; the more actual science gets done about what people are like, the more obvious this becomes.  The prescriptive norm is a political tool to articulate power across a social group.)

That's never going to delegitimize the prescriptive norm.  More to the immediate point, it doesn't attach to the individual with the responsibility; the point to "special needs" is not that the individual differs from the norm, but that someone is responsible to help them do the thing.  The point with accessibility is not that you want more people to be able to do the thing, it's that someone who owns property is responsible to do whatever is necessary to make some list of material things require no more than a specified level of effort.  (And where are the city inspectors using a force gauges to tow little carts with accelerometers, I ask?  Let's quantify the ramps and the curb cuts; while we're at it, add some reach sensors and quantify the swept volume of the doors and ramps and curb cuts.  And the point A to point B energy requirements.  Measure things, don't wave the sacred name of inclined plane at the problem.)

So, anyway; the appropriate labels aren't "disabled" or "special needs"; the appropriate labels (for structures) are "fit for purpose" and "unfit for purpose" and every commercial building should get a pass-warn-fail card just like restaurants do.  In detail.  And if you fail, you can't operate. Her Majesty's servants come and change your locks and turn off the power.  (You're not a legal commercial utilities customer if your building is unfit for purpose.)

The appropriate labels for the education system (in the very broad "become able to participate as a citizen" sense) are "effective" and "ineffective"; can the student do the thing?  Well, ok, what's the next thing?  The measures here are inevitably statistical; there's a lot of things.  List of things, rate of acquisition of ability to do the thing, persistence of the ability, all that stuff must be extremely public at the scale of regional statistical abstraction.  People's jobs depend on there being a positive trend in the statistics.

Sure, some people won't ever be able to do the thing.  (Don't put too much weight on that; anything anybody gets a regular paycheck for is something you very likely can't do at all or that well.  The thing you can do isn't anything like general.)  That's not the point.  The point is that we don't get an effective result by declaring "this is normal; be normal".  We might be able to get a more effective result by presenting a stack of capability and saying "we want you to be able to do all these things"; we can measure that, we can attach the label to the responsibility (ministers of education, school boards...) and we can be descriptive ("when we say thing, we mean..") rather than prescriptive. 

For the most part, the violence inherent in the system derives from the prescriptive; making the prescriptive is work, and damaging.  It takes realized threats to make it stick.  If we want peace, we can't have prescriptive.

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