Sameness and Specialness
My longtime friend and thought partner, Arthur Webb has just published a book about public policy in the field of intellectual and development disabilities (I/DD). He has been a commissioner of the state agency serving those with disabilities and headed New York’s Health Planning group. He has also been head of large group of nonprofits that serve the disabled. No one knows the I/DD field better than this gent. While the focus is New York, Dangling on a String is relevant to all of us who ponder the dynamics of public policy, especially resource allocation. In many areas, government is the largest foundation in town.
One of Arthur’s insights in the book is about the relationship of sameness and specialness. While special is often built into both fields and populations—as in “special education”—we don’t think enough about where and why an adjective is applicable. If some things are special, for example, then other things must not be special. Arthur focusses on special not for a specific population but as individual differences: There is an ironic outcome of the efforts to achieve full integration and inclusion of persons with I/DD into community life. In being recognized as full citizens, able to share in and contribute to the common good and civic life, there is a risk that sameness will lessen the focus on specialness, which has been the prevailing sentiment and core value driving policy and practice.
He has an explanation of why the possession arrow so often goes to commonality: The reality is that eventually payments will be driven to the most common characteristics instead of dissimilar qualities…once the homogenization sets in, it is the nature of payment systems to drive to the average. It is easier for public officials to use averages because they are simpler to explain and calculate.
Philanthropy faces the same challenges as does government. On the one hand grant makers note that each community has its own needs to which support should go. On the other they want to show that investments can “move the needle” on common denominators.
Sameness and specialness may both need to be uncommon at their end points and at least “in common” at their intersection.
Dangling on a String is a provocative way of surfacing this and many other distinctions which become clear in the context of a very large example of investing in human gain—New York State.