Leadership Focus: ABILITIES not Disabilities!

By Nelson Santiago

Updated Over a Week Ago

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Leadership focuses on abilities! Being a parent to two boys with developmental disabilities has given me first-hand experience with many amazing talents and the superior intelligence they both possess.

One thing that always sticks out in my mind is how often people are unaware that autism is not an intellectual disorder. On the contrary, individuals on the autism spectrum have historically been some of our greatest thinkers and innovators.

Let me give you an example of the breathtaking intellect I am privy to on a daily basis:

The Ninjago Episode

My step-son, 10, an Aspie, loves “Ninjago.” If you have a 10- year-old boy, you know what I speak of. So, in search of a way to interact with my son that engages him, I decided to propose to him the following activity: “How about we film our own versions of Ninjago episodes using your own Lego sets?” “Sure!” he quickly replied.

The arrangement was filmed while he moved the Lego pieces, produced the sound effects, and did the ‘voice-over’ of the characters. So, he gets out all of his Ninjago Lego pieces and “Action!” We begin filming. Well, as I was filming, my son made all of his own sound effects, and I began to notice that his dialogue (the script) between the Lego pieces had context and meaning to it.

So, I say “cut.” And asked him, “Did you write this script?” and he replied, “No, I memorized the dialogue from the cartoon.” Oh, okay, so skeptical of his claim, I later reviewed my video of the episode we filmed and watched the episode of Ninjago he claimed to have memorized, and….. after comparing the two, I sat there, thinking, “My God, he did memorize every single word, expression, sound effect, and movement of the Lego pieces.

We filmed a second episode, and again, virtually a 10-year-old carbon copy of the Ninjago episode.

Disability or Ability?

This ‘ability’ may be rare, you might think. Perhaps it’s one of those stories you have seen on “Ripley’s” or even Discovery Channel. The reality is that this is more common and has been more common throughout our history than most are aware of. How many of you have seen “A Beautiful Mind?” If you have, how many of you knew that story before the movie came out?

Our society has shaped our frame of thought about disabilities in a way that the very utterance of that word paints images of wheelchairs, crutches, and physical ailments and leads our hearts down a path of sorrow and despair. How can we focus on one’s abilities when images and emotions bombard our minds and hearts to the contrary?

The leadership, in both the private and public sectors, has a responsibility to inaugurate a paradigm shift in thought, reaction, and, most importantly, engagement with persons with disabilities. HOW?

Here are 5 steps for Leaders in identifying a refreshed view of ‘abilities.’

How do You Define “ABILITIES?”

If everyone were to adhere to a strict abidance to our generic definition of abilities, Jon Nash (The subject of “A Beautiful Mind.”) would have been quickly placed in confinement based on his ‘disabilities.’ Instead, he enjoyed the free reign of midnight blackboard scribbles at Princeton University. Nash’s psycho-social challenges were no doubt worrisome to all those around him and those who loved him the most. But many chose to focus on his abilities and love him through his disabilities (if you will). Thanks to those people, we have the gift of the Nash Equilibrium that impacts our lives today through the Stock Exchange.

So, back to the question; how do you define abilities? Is it empirically tied to one’s ability to function socially? Or is your definition of abilities detached from the nuances of individuality and focused on what one can offer and less focused on what one cannot?

Picasso Einstein’s Definition:

ABILITIES (U-bi-li-tees) – Performance potential based on internal, external, and environmental factors that have been molded to lend themselves to the exploration of possibilities instead of limitations.

“Gauge the Engagement” | How do You Gauge “ABILITIES?”

First and foremost, engaging anyone in ways you are not familiar with or accustomed to is in itself a challenge. I often work with at-risk youth as well, and the engagement approach is quite customized and acute. Demographics such as ethnicity, culture, economy, age, gender, and environment play a role in one’s ability to engage and ability to be engaged.

So, engaging one’s abilities cannot be defined by simply asking, “What can you do?” Why not? Because individuals internally place limitations on their own abilities, so, therefore, the answer to that question in itself will be subjective (skewed, if you will).

When engaging persons with disabilities, here are a few questions I like to ask in the order that it is listed. This will assist you in properly and accurately ‘gauging the engagement.’

  • Tell me four things you love to do.
  • How often do you do the things you love? And with whom?
  • Tell me two things you hate to do.
  • Do you ever do things you hate to do? Give me an example of when? Why?
  • What things would you say are things you will never be able to do?
  • What things do you say you can’t do now but aspire to do one day?

Leadership Focus: Identify 5 (Key Performance Indicators):

1. Motivation

  • What excites him/her and leads to performance?
  • What qualities of activity engage his/her interest?
  • How does he/she engage with others?

2. Deterrents

  • What disengages performance?
  • What qualities of activities dilute interest?
  • What qualities about others disengage performance?

3. Self-perceived abilities

  • Abilities as obstacles (what things can never be done)
  • Abilities as empowerment (what things have the possibility of being done now or near future)
  • Abilities on-demand (what things are done on a ‘need’ basis only)

4. Self-perceived limitations

  • Insight into his/her perception of own disabilities
  • Reasons why some disabilities seem insurmountable
  • Reasons why some disabilities seem conquerable

5. Support systems

  • Where/when/how does the person perform the most?
  • Where/when/how does the person perform the least?
  • With whom does the person perform the most/least?

These first two steps will help you begin your journey towards a true engagement of abilities and a distancing from the emphasis on one’s disabilities. In Part 2, I will discuss “What Performance means to a person with disabilities” & “When Independence drives, abilities get in the driver’s seat.”

How Can Leadership Focus Include Persons With Disabilities?

If you have ideas about leadership focus that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Nelson Santiago
Nelson Santiago
Nelson is co-founder of Picasso Einstein a firm that provides branding consulting services for businesses. They also teach entrepreneurship to persons with disabilities and their families through the "E4i" (Entrepreneurship 4 Independence) program. Picasso Einstein is currently assisting the Dan Marino Foundation to develop the Entrepreneurship Program for the Marino Campus, a school of higher learning for young adults with developmental disabilities.
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