Getting close to water: how politicians can talk about the hard stuff

a diagram showing the skills and qualities leaders need to bring about inclusive change
Commentary
Getting close to water: how politicians can talk about the hard stuff
Once the Summit for Democracy is over and we move into the year of action, legislators and political leaders who want to promote respect for human rights and help build disability-inclusive societies would do well to bear this set of skills and qualities in mind – and make sure they cultivate them

The author David Foster Wallace once observed that “the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about”. He illustrated this with a parable: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’” 

On this International Day of People with Disabilities, it is important that we acknowledge the obvious and important reality that people with disabilities experience life differently, and their experiences need to influence how a society is governed. We need to see and talk about water. To do so, people with disabilities need to be fully and equally represented in decision-making. It is this type of inclusive representation that we champion today and will be the focus of a Summit for Democracy event being co-hosted by the US, the UK and Norway on disability-inclusive democracy.  

But seeing and talking about water is hard. If it wasn’t, politicians and activists would not need to fight for the provision of disabled rights to rectify unfair and at times intolerable challenges societies put in the way of people with disabilities. To get this conversation started, our elected representatives need to make sure everyone knows what water is. Doing so will require a different kind of leadership.   

Politicians know how to set out the injustices and the needs of those they represent. It is why we elect them. But as the parable suggests, ‘talking about water’ means more than that. It means talking about a way of being, a way of seeing, a way of doing. It is about incorporating the unique and valuable experience of people with disabilities into the discussion structures that determine the way society is shaped. It is about inclusive leadership. 

Leadership for inclusion

Inclusive leadership is not limited to securing the rights of a particular group; including everybody in decision-making enriches our collective society.  Strong democracies need legislation and policies which recognise, measure and plan for the specific needs of, and impacts on, all citizens. Dastan Bekeshev, a visually impaired politician from Kyrgyzstan I spoke to, relayed how this motivated his goal to represent others.  

As we approach the Summit for Democracy and the subsequent year of action, we need to better understand how inclusive leadership can be supported, and that means focusing on the political actors involved. Through 31 in-depth life history interviews with parliamentarians from 22 different countries, Dr Rebecca Gordon and I identified eight different qualities and skills associated with being able to inclusively represent others. MPs who want to do this effectively need to be:  

  • Collaborators 
  • Strategic thinkers 
  • Focused  
  • Relationship-builders and Listeners  
  • Eager to learn  
  • Trustworthy  
  • Creative  
  • Self-aware and Reflective  

Read our study on inclusive leadership

What ties all the qualities we identified together is the ability to get close to the experience of others, and to use that understanding in the performance of politics and parliamentary practices.  

If you are a politician passionate about enabling the perspectives of disabled persons to make our world flourish, being creative, self-aware, and reflective are for me the standout inclusive leadership qualities that could help you to ‘talk about water.’  

Being creative in politics is the ability to make creative use of existing resources or institutional structures to meet your desired goals. It requires being flexible when alternative opportunities are not available, and it involves seeking out-of-the-box ways to integrate different perspectives into the policy process. Better still, it involves creating new boxes all together: Disability activist and Malawi MP, Bonface Massah, created a Private Members Bill to speed up the passing of much needed amendments to the Anatomy Act and Penal Code, while Canadian MP Randy Boissonault told us he “showed up looking for gaps and looking for things that needed to be done”.  

Being self-aware and reflective in politics involves being committed to thinking critically about how you engage in the process of acquiring and integrating unseen and unheard perspectives into the policy process. This means thinking holistically about your actions; what you say and how you say it, as well as its impact on legislative texts and political will. Being self-aware and self-reflective in politics means knowing the role you play in shaping the outcome, not only in the actions you take but how you take them. Jamaican MP, Dr Angela Brown Burke put it simply: “we have to critically self-reflect, do some reflection and determine if what you are doing is right”.  

Once the Summit for Democracy next week is over and we move into the year of action, legislators and political leaders who want to promote respect for human rights and help build disability-inclusive societies would do well to bear these skills and qualities in mind – and make sure they cultivate them. Meanwhile, civic leaders and activists looking for allies in parliaments should identify members who can demonstrate them.  

While bottom lines matter in politics, and the provision of disabled services to equalise standards of living is fundamental, how you achieve this as a politician is the difference between equalising society or enhancing it. Inclusive leadership makes the difference between politicians who strive for equality and those who strive for a new society all together.