There is No Such Thing as a Self-Made Human

> Posted by Joshua Goldstein aka Mr. Provocative

There is unfortunately no reliable substitute for family support when it comes to helping a person succeed with their schooling, with their disability, or with their microfinance loan.

Thomas Friedman of The New York Times recently asked educators in Shanghai what made Chinese schools successful, compared to schools in the United States. The unequivocal answer was that while improved teacher training that the U.S. emphasizes was of course important, far and away the key to student achievement was intensive parental involvement; Chinese schools spend time and resources insuring that parents are trained in how to help their children learn.


A heretical Mr. Provocative agrees with conservatives that throwing billions into the latest education reform fad will have extremely limited success as long as family support is anemic or absent. (This is not to say that reformers don’t routinely ask parents to take more responsibility but clearly such a nudge is not enough.) “It’s the parents, stupid,” or, “It’s the family, stupid.”

We have to point at the family as the prime mover even when this is hurtful and it causes “guilt and shame.” Nothing wrong with pricking the conscience. This is a “theory of change” that is millennia old and has long had some success for most religions—in a positive way. But public policy cognoscenti shun the language of judgment and conscience. In not asking more of families are we not party to what George W. Bush called “the bigotry of low expectations?”

My “it’s the family, stupid” sentiment has been reinforced by listening to a recent Ted Talk by Stanford graduate and Rhodes Scholar, Rachel Kolb, who was born profoundly deaf.

Rachel has managed remarkable success in navigating the hearing world, a sadly rare feat for someone from the deaf community. She credits her parents for her achievements and happiness. They never told her she couldn’t do something. They concentrated on her abilities not disabilities and did whatever it took to help Rachel pursue her education and dreams. One example: Young Rachel loved horses, but was told at the stable that a deaf child could never be safe on a horse. Her parents found a trainer who did not buy into this nonsense.

Rachel’s parents learned sign language when she was an infant so that they could better communicate with her. Later, they provided her with years of intensive speech therapy that made it possible for her to deliver this incredibly articulate Ted Talk. In a world where most deaf Americans read at a fourth grade level, and only a third of deaf children complete high school, Rachel, who has steeped herself in literature from a young age, is planning on becoming a writer.

The point is that without family support, Rachel would live a marginalized life with few opportunities to become herself. And among persons with disabilities who are clients of microfinance institutions, my anecdotal research, visiting MFIs around the world, tells me that the family is the guarantor of success, the most reliable collateral.

Such families help the relative with a disability realize the dream of building a business. So if, for example, a young woman in a wheel chair takes out a loan to buy a bread oven, she will do the baking at home and a relative will take the loaves to market and sell them. The individual loan empowers the economic activity of at least two people in a household! A caretaker and a dependent have morphed into business partners. I would guess that many individual microfinance loans to the non-disabled are de facto family loans, but I have no statistics to back that up.

So what frequently happens to the poor, disabled person who lacks family support and encouragement —as well as a disability friendly financial services provider? (And that is the vast majority, since only 0.5 percent of current clients of MFIs are persons with disabilities.) Her fate is similar to the school child who is not encouraged by her family—but far more hellish. Out of embarrassment families hide her away, deprive her of stimulation, and condemn her to a kind of solitary confinement, stunting her growth for good.

The moral of the story: We all need the love and support of others, especially our families, to flourish in our lives. At home, at school, at work. There is no such thing as a “self-made” human.

Video credit: TEDx

Have you read?

A How-To Guide to Realizing Disability Inclusion at MFIs is Now Available

Combatting Exclusion for Persons with Disabilities in India and Mexico

Coping with Clients Suffering from Cognitive Deficits


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