Thursday, June 24, 2010

The E-Words

No, it has nothing to do with BEE, or BBBEE, or any of the fashionable EE's for that matter. The E's are for Education, Employment, and Environment, and their role in the development of our sense of self-esteem, although, in some form they can be viewed as empowering.

In recent discussions the topic was raised on the sense of self worth, or self-esteem, in disabled people. How is it generated? How is it maintained and encouraged? We were careful not to confuse self confidence with self-esteem. Self confidence was seen as the more "outward" projection of our personality, whereas self-esteem was viewed as an "inner" belief. What you think of yourself when looking in the mirror.

The position of the "Environment" E-word was up for debate. It became a "chicken or egg" (which comes first?) word as it was argued whether a favourable environment needed to come ahead of education and employment, or whether a favourable environment was created from the foundation of education and employment. Be that as it may, its role as one of the three E's was never in doubt.

Whether we like it or not self-esteem is a measuring device. It is our personal "State of the Nation" gauge as to how we feel about ourselves relative to our peers. If our inner report card tells us we're better than others, we feel good about ourselves, and our world looks brighter. Given the importance of a positive mental attitude, and its impact on our physical health, the role of self-esteem in shaping our lives should not be underestimated.

Regardless of ability, or disability, the building blocks for our personal self-esteem lie in our education, which can be carried through to our employment and work, or spread across our family, friends and acquaintances. Remove education and the potential for development of self esteem will be stalled, or at best severely limited. Remove employment and our ability to fulfil our educational prospects becomes blunted, and dependency, the enemy of self-esteem looms on the horizon. Create a negative physical or emotional environment and the prospects for both education and employment become bleak.

Alternatively, when any one or more of the E's is encouraged and developed it can trigger an upliftment in a most positive way. A solid education is the ideal springboard to successful employment. I use the term education broadly, because I see it as being more than simply book learning and the passing of exams. It includes an education of communication, interacting with others, socialising, sport and recreation. It is an education of all the senses, seeing, hearing, and speech.

Employment is a logical progression from the initial Education stage. It might well lead to further education as one seeks to fine tune skills, but this is not a pre-requisite. More importantly, with employment comes the means to gain independence, or put more basically, money. Yes, to some folk it is a dirty word, representative of so many evils of our world, but without it we can do very little in the modern world. It buys us food, and clothes, and homes, and for many of us wheelchairs, and bath hoists. It is also the oil which runs our social life, at restaurants, theatres, and sports events.

And last, but by no means least, we have our chicken or egg E-word, the Environment. I have always believed that disabled people are more instinctively environmentally conscious because we are impacted directly by it. Simply put, it means more to us. Our environment might be created for us by our parents or friends, or a disabled friendly town. It might be created by us through building a wheelchair friendly house or encouraging an employer to make their offices more accessible. Since our environment is a constantly changing thing it also feeds back to us, forcing us to adapt, change, alter and improve our ways of doing things. Consider the impact on our lives of cell phones, accessible buildings, computers, and the Internet in only the last ten years. Our education is never complete. In some cases the creation of a positive environment might have less to do with physical barriers but be more emotional. How we interact with others, and they with us? How much are we encouraged? How much are we trusted? Who believes in us?

Here we reach right to the core of our self esteem, the ability to believe in ourselves, in all our skills and abilities drawn from all the E's. Regardless of which E-word comes first, all three E's need to be in place for self-esteem to flourish.