The Utility of Common Sense by Jack Pealer

The narrative in this video was prompted by a study done in the 90s by one of our great thinkers, Jack Pealer. So, to honor Jack, and in preparation for our 3Day community gathering kicking-off tonight, I thought it good timing to share one of his posts written on this very topic around community and isolation. Thanks Jack. Hope to see some of our Cincibility followers at the 3Day!


The Utility of Common Sense

“We’ll have to keep working to avoid the general judgment that some people should be gathered up and put somewhere else to get help.”  -Jack Pealer

Is “common sense” useful to those who want to support richer lives for people with disabilities?  Seems like it should be.  After all, much of the richness that we’re trying to enable people to experience is found, we say, in the varied patterns and textures of that locus of our existence we call “community.”  Communities, by definition, work better when they are governed by commonly agreed upon ideas—common expectations and experiences.  Shouldn’t that mean that this “common sense” that supports community life will also support those members who have disabilities?

Sometimes yes and sometimes no.

Let’s look at the yes-examples first.  Over the years I’ve often found myself facilitating meetings where a person with disability, her/his family, friends, and other supporters were trying to describe a bright future and to figure out the best ways for that future to happen.  A remarkable thing about those meetings is that the people who come to them really listen—sometimes for the first time—to the person who is the meeting’s focus.  Participants really work to understand the interests, the wants of that person, and they try to develop a vision that captures those interests.  Most often the visions and plans that issue from these gatherings are rooted in common sense.  That is, the ideas that develop are usually self-evidently rational for this person at this time in his/her life.

Common sense is the process at work when people understand, for example, that this person a) can’t stand living in a big group any longer or b) won’t be helped by coming to a workshop or day program every day or c) needs a personal relationship that lasts with one (or more) others.  In this context, common sense is what leads planners toward the sort of plain inferences that have sometimes resulted in big changes in the lives of some people.  So, at least one kind of common sense—the kind the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines as “… the plain wisdom which is every man’s inheritance”—does offer support to people with disabilities.

But there are other meanings of common sense, and those offer less comfort.  For example, the OED also defines common sense as “… the general sense, feeling, or judgment of a community.”  The idea is that communities tend to hold some ideas in common, including ideas about themselves—who “we” are—and about other people—who is “not us.”  This version of common sense can attack the potential membership of people with disabilities.  Wolf Wolfensberger (author of social role valorization) described the common sense of communities about people who are judged to be “not us;” this description took the form of a catalog of “common negative social roles imposed on societally devalued people” (see A Brief Introduction to Social Role Valorization).

Among the roles listed in this catalog are those that describe some people as “sub-human/animal” and “burden of charity.”  Common sense—as unconscious but real community judgment—is what led me and other officials of a community where I once lived to decide that the right place where children with disabilities (only) should go to school was a location seven miles from town next to the county poor farm and animal shelter.  Wolfensberger’s list of devalued social roles also includes that of “menace or object of dread.”  Common sense—the general feeling of a community—is what led countless citizens of neighborhoods across North America to abandon civility and oppose, sometimes with violence, the presence of people with disabilities as their neighbors.

Some years ago, I sat working in an office of a school that was open only to children with disabilities.  A car pulled up outside.  A man got out, lifted from the back seat a cardboard box, and carried the box into the school.  Coming into the office, he explained that he was from the local (community) Elks or VFW or American Legion Post.  I forget which.  His group had sponsored an Easter party a week before—a party for the children of group members.  They had candy left over.  Would “these” children like to have it?  The candy was accepted; he returned to his car and drove away.  I thought then that it was possible that he drove past several other schools on his mission to deliver left over candy.  There are other schools in our town.  But, something that we might call his common sense (the general judgment of our community) about difference and the exclusion that communities say must accompany it led him to this school and “these” children.

We need to think carefully about the extent to which common sense—our own and that of our fellow citizens—can be trusted as a guide for helping and supporting people with disabilities toward richer lives.  On one hand, if I’m trying to assist one person whom I’ve come to know—and if I’m doing so together with others who also know and care about the person—I think I’d be trustworthy, most of the time.  Common sense is a useful guide when it’s informed by relationship and affection.

On the other hand, if I’m considering how to support a group of people with disabilities (or a “batch,” as sociologist Erving Goffman named the unconscious view often held of such collectivities), the general community judgment about those people may not be of use—may actually turn my attempts to help in quite harmful directions.  Given the history of organized services, we should view with suspicion what seems to a community to be “common sense” about how it assists groups of people whom community members have learned to understand as “not us”.

But, for as far ahead as I can see, communities will use organized services as their main tools to try to help groups of people.  And that means that those who want to support people with disabilities toward richer lives have to stay alert about appeals to common sense.  We’ll have to keep working to avoid the general judgment that some people should be gathered up and put somewhere else to get help.  We need a preference for the plain wisdom that grows from meeting each person where she/he is and connecting that person with other citizens who share her/his interests and who will become devoted to her/his participation and membership with all the rest of us.

katie bachmeyer