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What is contribution?

In this video, Educators Louisa Smith and Karen Soldatic introduce Week 5 of the Working with Disability course, which looks at ideas of contribution.
MAN: FutureLearn. [THEME MUSIC] UNSW Australia. What is contribution?
LOUISA SMITH: This week we’re going to be talking about contribution. And it’s another one of these words that we’ve been looking at throughout this course, and through its sister course, Thinking through Disability, where we kind of throw the term up in the air and tease it a little bit, and see what it really means and look at what we take for granted about this word, and how that may inform our ideas of working with disability.
LOUISA: So, Karen– you did a little bit of casual investigation of the term contribution and looked it up in the dictionary.
KAREN: I did.
LOUISA: Good place to start.
KAREN: I did. So the definition that you have in your MOOC I got from my very old Oxford dictionary. Actually I think there were four definitions, what I remember. And out of all of them except one, the whole idea of contribution was all about resources– making money, contributing economically. And this to me was really interesting, that here was an older dictionary, and this was the central meaning given to that word. And in a lot of welfare systems around the world the whole idea of contribution at the moment, since the global financial crisis, has really been about economic contribution.
And so even though this dictionary is much older, than the global financial crisis, I thought, well, isn’t this interesting that this is the history of this word, or what we call in academia, genealogy. And how exclusionary that word is, by how it understands this very narrow definition of contribution.
LOUISA: And we really see that I think in what is therefore valued, and what we are valued for as people in society. That we then become more highly valued perhaps because of the kinds of financial economic contribution that we make, and devalued when those kinds of contributions aren’t the central focus of our lives. And it’s essentially also an argument that’s been made by feminists.
KAREN: That’s right.
LOUISA: And we’ve discussed that already when we have looked at the concept of care and support, already in this course– in that what we tried to understand there was, well how do we value care and relationships, and the interrelationships and the impact that we can have on one another, and the contribution that we can make to other people’s lives that isn’t necessarily financial?
KAREN: That’s right and that– I mean, I think that’s a very interesting starting point, because the issue about feminism, what they’ve actually been able to highlight, is that women providing care, or what we call reproductive labour, has always been unpaid. But that’s been a critical part in actually generating economic contribution. Because unless you have someone at home providing care, looking after children, and contributing in that way, then people aren’t able to actually go to work. People aren’t able to actually not just go to work but be healthy when they go to work, because they live in a place that’s clean. They have access to well-cooked food.
They have their home life actually organised in a way that enables them to participate in the labour market. So feminists have been really good in highlighting how this aspect of the economic sphere really relies on this contribution within the home sphere– for people to generate economic contribution. And in disability, that’s really what people with disability are trying to say, is that we are actually contributing to society by our– by the kinds of things that we contribute to, not necessarily in the economic sphere, but in the social sphere, in the home sphere, in the cultural sphere. And it’s that contribution that needs to be recognised, because at the moment it’s not.
So it’s quite a similar argument to feminists, but it’s about looking at, what is it that people with disabilities contribute? And they contribute a lot to the way that we understand the world, to the way that we engage with each other, to the kinds of social relationships that we build with each other. But also they contribute to broader political ideas about how we want to be in the world. And that comes back to the ideas of human rights that we were talking about before, in terms of issues of respect and recognition and participation and how we understand human value. And people with disabilities are actively contributing to that process.
And by focusing purely on the economic sphere, particularly since the global financial crisis, it’s completely overridden the dialogue– and the processes and practises and institutions of social inclusion and cohesion that people with disabilities are contributing to.
LOUISA: Yeah I think that’s really important as well in what you’re saying there– that what this work about contribution can actually add in disability studies is not actually just for the benefit of people with disabilities. And I think that’s often a misconception with feminism as well. It’s actually not just for the benefit of women. It’s about the recognition of everybody in society and all relationships and processes and forms of labour that are occurring. So I think an interesting way to finish, would be to think– for us to think in fact, about the ways that we contribute. And also you’ll notice in the talking point that– for you to think about the ways that you contribute.
And I think you’ll find very quickly that the ways that you think about your own contribution are really not limited, and in fact would be incredibly limited if you only thought about it in economic terms. So, for instance, I probably think about myself contributing most to my family in a relational sense and as a form of– as a carer, and as a person who is in a relationship. And all of those kinds of dynamics rather than as the money that I bring into my family, although that is important. And I imagine something similar to you, Karen.
KAREN: That’s right. I think for me– while you’ve mentioned the realm of family, rather than me just focusing on my family, I think– if I just think about yesterday, I had a very good friend who called me from Perth, to ask me– she’s the chair of this very innovative disability arts group– and she called me to ask me about a number of things that they want to do in the future.
And so we spent an hour and a half to two hours talking on the phone, discussing ideas and bouncing ideas about what the future might look like for them under certain circumstances. And so in that case I was contributing. I’m contributing to something that’s happening 3,500 kilometres away from where I live. I’m contributing to a process that I’m not really involved in, at a day-to-day– actually I’m not involved in at a day-to-day level. And I’m contributing to that person’s learning about other possibilities that are outside their own sphere of daily experience.
So, I mean, that’s another form of contribution that I was able to provide– in addition to contributing to my daughter’s development by being at home in the morning and getting her sandwich ready to take to school and all of those kinds of things. I think contribution we need to think about it in a much more layered way, and think about what we give to others, and also what others give to us.
LOUISA: Yeah, I think that’s really important.
KAREN: Because once we think about what others give to us, we actually begin to understand that contribution is much, much richer than pure just economic resources.
LOUISA: And reciprocal as well. Yeah, so I think now if you go away and start thinking about– you might do it over the whole week– start thinking about the ways in which you contribute and the diverse and complex ways in which others contribute to your life. It will really help and assist us as we’re moving through this week to think through contribution.

This week we look at the diverse contributions of people with disabilities. In the above video, Educators Louisa and Karen kick off the week by introducing different definitions of contribution.

As Karen mentions, even in the dictionary the meaning of contribution assumes a particular type of act: “to give something, especially money or goods, to help a person or an organisation” (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, 5th Edition: 1995, p. 252). As Karen and Louisa go on to discuss, this understanding focuses on money and economic transactions. It implies noticing and valuing only economic forms of contribution, which can deny or ignore other important roles we might play in society, or other forms of help we might give to one other.

This narrow view of contribution can also undervalue ways of contributing that may not be immediately thought of as one person “giving” to another — such as participating in the advancement of human knowledge, creating jobs, or contributing to human diversity.

At various points in this course you have seen how being valued in society — or making a “contribution” — is often connected to productivity and employment and (less often) to reproduction and childrearing. However, for many people with disabilities, making these kinds of contribution can be problematic, whether because of their impairments or because of the disabling effects of society.

Finally, we often see the idea of “contributing” discussed in relation to someone, or some organisation, giving money or goods to people with disabilities. Too often, non-disabled people are asked to contribute to disabled people’s lives through giving money to large disability charities. This kind of contribution can set up an unequal relationship: the non-disabled person gives, and the disabled person is the passive recipient. Rarely do we hear about people with disabilities contributing to others.

Talking points

  • What do you think of when people talk about “making a contribution”?
  • Have you heard the word contribution used in your situation? Does it tend to relate to the giving of money or goods? Or is it used in other ways?
  • If English is not your first language, how does the term “contribution” translate, and does it have a similar or different meaning?

In the next step, we begin to explore how to think about contribution differently.

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