Breaking Limitations | Wai Hung Ma

Breaking Limitations on DEI – Part 1

Each year new words and concepts are born, so it is prudent for us to look at the meaning and the history of these words and concepts.  As meanings change, people can adapt their narratives to fit the changed meanings.  I would like to take a look at the meaning of the concept of DEI today compared to the 80s when I was in high school.

The meaning of DEI is diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are three different but interconnected concepts. They work together to create an environment of respect and fairness. It involves initiatives promoting equal access, opportunity, employment, and a sense of belonging to underrepresented people in the workplace.  This is how Google currently defines DEI.   

However, spurred on by the affirmative action and civil rights movements of the 60s, the 80s introduced the idea that a diverse workforce, in alignment with DEI principles, could provide competitive advantage and a positive business case.  Acceptance of new ideas often require the un-learning of old ideas, such as the zero-sum-game.  For example, “old” logic might assume, that if under-represented groups are to benefit, then privileged groups would suffer.  Fortunately today, there is a lot of evidence that universal design benefits all participants, a classic example being curb cuts.[i]  One must also acknowledge that controversy continues to this day; in spite of the greater acceptance of DEI principles and its benefits, there is also a discernable resistance to the idea. 

In the 80s, there was a sense that DEI was primarily intended to help others who helped themselves to have a better life. In high school I had a teacher’s aide who helped me with my school work and studies.  I remember two other disabled students receiving less assistance with their studies and they struggled.  Looking back I question why I received support and not them.  I believe people saw more potential in me than them.  The government (and by extension, society and educators) invested in me.  This experience has shaped my worldview: I hold the belief that if I work hard people will give me a hand and help me go forward.  Maybe this is the old way of thinking but it works for me in my life.

[i] At one time, curb cuts (or kerb ramps, forming a solid ramp graded down from the top surface of a sidewalk to the surface of an adjoining street) were considered controversial.  With conventional design, which designs for the majority, the majority benefits.  With universal design, which designs for marginalized populations, everybody benefits. 

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