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The Power of Listening Across Differing Views

Prenatal diagnosis and selective abortion have been hotly debated in the medical, feminist, disability rights, and bio-ethics literature. Each of the various factions has positions which criticize and invalidate the others. By and large, people from the various perspectives do not read about each other's views but tend to only write for themselves and their colleagues. Few people cross disciplines and try to talk to people from the other camps.

The rigid positions of the various groups have made it difficult to formulate workable public policy which encompasses the new genetic technologies. As a result, the powerful bio-technology industry is growing unchallenged. New prenatal tests have appeared on the market for over 400 conditions, including the original "screenable" conditions such as sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, and Down's Syndrome. Doctors are promoting these tests with very little training in genetics, virtually no knowledge of disability oppression, and no understanding of how social factors influence the quality of life for children and adults with disabilities. Women and families are getting test results for genetic conditions with little information other than their own stereotypes and fears of disability. Many bio-tech companies are effectively exploiting people's fear of disability to market tests, and the medical profession, in its quest to control and "cure," is colluding. While some argue that the tests offer "reproductive options," it has been clear to me that these tests do not help parents confront the real barriers to raising children with severe disabilities: sexism, parents' oppression, and disability oppression.

I was able to obtain funding for a national conference on disability rights and genetics issues. Together with a wonderful team, I put together a small pilot conference of forty people. The purpose of the conference was to bring together prominent experts from different disciplines and disparate perspectives. My modest goal was to enlist these people to listen respectfully to each other. We selected people we felt would be able to listen reasonably to other points of view. We wanted to see what we could learn from each other, and to document the process.

Early on in the conference, I modeled exchanging listening attention by using myself and a Co-Counseling friend in a demonstration in front of the group. We took turns sharing information about a few life factors which had influenced our views on selective abortionñshe, about her fears around disability and the prospect of mothering a disabled child, and me, about my experiences as a child with a disability. I appreciated her for her courage in honestly sharing her feelings and tried to explain to the group the importance of getting to this kind of sensitive material and listening appreciatively and non-judgmentally.

As a small but important step toward creating public policy recommendations, I wanted participants to understand that people's intellectual points of view arise from their life experiences, and that listening to people articulate not only their ideas, but their life stories, broadens the issues and allows us to better understand and appreciate each other, and then think together.

The small groups went well. People were able to listen to each other with a minimum of arguing. Participants clamored for an extra meeting of the small listening groups. A day into the conference, when I began to get a sense of the whole group, I glimpsed the potential for exceeding my original goals. These people were ready and eager to discharge.

I decided to do another demonstration. I chose the mother of a disabled child. This woman had become a leader of a family support organization. I held her hand, asked her to tell her story, and encouraged her to keep talking through her protests that she was taking up too much time and her apologies that she was crying. She told the story of her daughter's birth and life, and how positive an impact this little girl, non-verbal and unable to walk, had had on the family. The child eventually grew seriously ill, and it became clear that she was going to die. The mother described her daughter's last moments in the hospital. When she recounted the girl's death and told the group, "I said goodbye to my greatest teacher," there was not a dry eye in the auditorium. Someone let out a sob. I looked around the room and felt the power of attention and discharge. These people, some who'd recently regarded or even accused each other of being crack pots, Nazis, or weirdoes, were crying together.

The closing circle for the conference was lovely. People had moved miles closer to each other.

I now understand in a new way Harvey's insistence that we learn to lead singly instead of depending on co-leading. Having led workshops for many years in the relative safety and comfort of the RC Community, now, in the wide world, I had the stamina to keep my attention going strong and to stay counselor for the three days of the conference. Although I had a great group of support people, I realized it was really up to me to maximize the resource there. I rose to the occasion. Believe me, it was a rare privilege.

Marsha Saxton
Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, USA


Last modified: 2021-06-01 12:29:59+00