Belonging is central to every aspect of our humanity. It is a universal need. When we feel like we belong somewhere, we feel we have found a home where we can group and be respected there. We move towards belonging when we celebrate and value our differences and our similarities as a group. When there is no othering of individuals of any identity, it can connect people by co-creating our world together. Where there are no divides within nations, neighborhoods, families, social spaces - both physical and virtual - and certainly within workplaces.
Belonging is essential if we are to thrive and survive as species. We need each other. We need to be seen, to be heard, to have people witnessing what we may become, and vice versa. Oftentimes, to feel belonging, small gestures may suffice: someone asking how we are today, or what we need, or simply who we are. Other times belonging can be more heartfelt based on actions, and actions that speak more: we need you here. You are seen, you are important, valued and you are heard. That is the principle of Empathy. Brenne Brown differentiates empathy from sympathy in which empathy fuels connections whereas sympathy drives disconnection. Basically empathy never has a sentence that starts with “At least you have X”.
Belonging expresses itself in many different ways and each one of us have a particular relationship with belonging. But the imperative rule of belonging is that it can only succeed if no one is excluded.
One way to address disabilities is to change the environment to enable belonging.
Othering happens when we communicate to people that they are not a part of our “we” because of their apparent differences. Othering happens at all levels, between two people, at school, in groups at churches, in institutions by the way we build structures and policies. Culturally, it manifests itself by the way one perceives the symbology and values that are elevated and worshiped by others.
70 Million people worldwide is affected by Autistic Spectrum Disorder
The World Health Organisation estimates that there are over one billion people with a disability in the world today, making people with disabilities the world’s largest minority. If we take the social model of disability, a disability is precisely a mismatch between a person’s abilities and needs, and their environment.
As an autistic person, I have experienced othering and unfairness in many circumstances where I could not just fit in and had to camouflage the signs of my autism in order to meet the social expectations and try to be part of the “we”.
When I was a kid there was no diagnosis for people like me, especially as I am a girl. I was one of those who did not have any coping mechanisms, making me a very vulnerable person. For many years I had to suppress self-calming repetitive movements, fake a smile in an environment that I found uncomfortable or distressing. The hardest part has been not being able to read people’s intentions nor pick up the cues. It has made it difficult and dangerous for me to belong to the “we”. Despite consciously evaluating my own behaviour and mirroring others, or choosing not to talk about my interests, masking has always been exhausting. Camouflaging was the coping mechanism that kept me trying to conquer social acceptance; to get the job of my dreams, to avoid ostracism, and verbal or physical abuse.
Research has found that autistic masking is correlated with isolation, depression and suicide (Cage, et all, Cassidy, et all). Many autistic adults in one survey described profound exhaustion from trying to pretend to be non-autistic.
Professor Powell also observes that othering can take many forms. It can be both implicit and explicit. Conscious and Unconscious. From small incidents to more extreme cases where people are denied and deprived of their own humanity.
Making an autistic person appear non-autistic or neurotypical in order to belong, for example, may conceal the person's need for support or help in times of vulnerability, exploitation and bullying.
Othering is something that unfortunately we have all experienced and we have done. To change this behaviour we must understand how and when it occurs. Recall a time when you were treated like the other. How did that make you feel?
In my case, I did not feel like myself, thought of myself as an outsider, questioned my own identity and the purpose of my humanity, labeled myself as “one of the weirdos”. I had periods that I felt completely invisible, disconnected from my own self and alone juggling between two different worlds. I did not belong entirely to either of them. And that was exhausting and depressing. Each year, 25%+ of the population in EU suffer from depression or anxiety, and due to stigma and isolation, 1 million people die by suicide each year.
When we fear our differences we then deny the connections we share. Marie Curie once said:
“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less”.
To value our differences as individuals we must first embrace ourselves, our identities and our very own differences. Recognising the diverse composition of our own identity can help us to be more open to differences. And see the parts we all share, parts of us that overlap with each other.
Think about yourself and describe the words that describe who you are. We are not just a thing and from a place.
For instance, I am a woman from Brazil, I love computers, machine learning and robots, I am the middle child, I am a Professor and a scholar. I am all these things and many others, like having a strong addiction to coffee :).
We all have multiple identities. The more we understand our identities the more we will understand those with whom we shall bridge connections. The connections that we make involve reaching across the lines of differences, of ways of thinking, of what goes beyond the neurodiverse traits of a person, so that we can form more expansive connections. Human connections should be grounded in empathy, recognition and a shared humanity.
Belonging never requires anyone to sacrifice what makes them unique, different and special.
If we listen and are present, we will not miss what others have to share, their experiences and the essence of their humanity. By doing so, we may create bridges with those whose distances from us are greater and where the stakes are higher.
Listening and empathy can build a safe space for people to share experiences, hear and appreciate one another. This does not mean making people feel comfortable or agreeing with them for the sake of agreeing. This is not belonging. This is camouflaging.
Similarly to the task of listening to others, we should open up to changes within ourselves. If you could choose an identity different from yours, how would you perceive yourself? What would you change or learn to appreciate by looking at things from an empathetic perspective?
We should always remember that belonging is not only about introducing someone to a space or to a group of friends. Belonging is not “fitting in” or “mimicking” others.
The real sense of belonging is co-creating spaces, groups and institutions and collectively designing how it will operate and help humans to thrive. Innovation, creativity, and empathy is most likely to come from parts of us that we don’t all share.
When we take on this journey together, we move away from the idea of myself and them to a future of a collective unity - “we”. It is a long journey full of remaking. We are like puzzle pieces and putting us together requires hard work and no trimming away of anyone's irregularities. The rules, values and expectations to bring those puzzle pieces together are made with everyone in mind, so that no one needs to check parts of themselves at the door. When you design well for people of all kinds and abilities, you design well for everybody else.
David Harvey once said: “The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights”. Always remember: it is about us, it is about our communities, our groups, our jobs, our schools. We have shared responsibilities and mutual say, but a mutual say that will mirror the society we want all to belong to.
In the midst of all the challenges we are facing today, for all the problems that feel beyond our control, maybe we could start here, creating a community where everyone truly feels they belong. We could start by:
● Accepting, starting with our own selves
● Accommodating and removing the barriers that make something disabling
● Being an Ally and advocate on behalf of people with disabilities
● Being open minded and caring
● Educating oneself, but don’t put the burden of educating you on the people with disabilities.
● Engaging in active listening, and participate in events and engage with the community
● Empathising and Empowering those around you
● Giving Constructive Feedback, being aware that some neurodivergent people may have low self-esteem or experience of being bullied, so ensure that any criticism is sensitive, and give positive feedback wherever appropriate.
● Guiding, but when guiding someone, give them control
● Having Conversations, talking to the person, not their interpreter.
● Showing Vulnerability, Empathising and Empowering those around you
● Speak up and constructively call out non-inclusive remarks, and explain why it matters to you