Experiences step up our insight

  • Published
  • By Air Force Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith
  • I.G. Brown Training and Education Center

FRIENDSVILLE, Tenn. -- One of the biggest things you hear around the U.S. Air Force these days is accelerating change, so you read stuff like leveraging inclusion, innovation, and diversity.

We’re talking about open-minded approaches that welcome the input of all service members.

But how do you get that insight? We may repeatedly be looking at issues and asking ourselves, “How can that person, just because they look different than me, possibly influence this mission?” Maybe it’s unanswered because we don’t take the time to appreciate personal experiences.

I think that change can come from more than appreciating our apparent differences, and here’s an example for you.

When I was building a deck at my camp several years ago, I worked off a set plan-and-materials list for a standard cantilever design, which I had selected from a builder’s book to use. And I was looking to purchase precut wood runners for the deck’s stairs. Next time you are in a lumber store, you can locate them to get an idea of what I’m describing.

I thought that I had a pretty good idea from my plans and the prebuilt stuff on how it would go. I had worked as a carpenter’s apprentice at one time, so I felt comfortable that I had the skills and knowledge to get it done by myself quickly.

However, shortly after starting the project, a close family member had a terrible automobile accident and broke dozens of bones on their left side. After some months in the hospital, they were in a wheelchair and disabled.

Suddenly, my deck-building plan did not work. Through that person’s eyes, my whole way of looking at things changed, not only in how someone can climb a staircase but in how someone with a disability views the entire world. How do they take a shower? How do they get in and out of a car? How do they go to the restroom or get to the store?

That experience made me an innovative stair designer. It made me study and think of step design for the disabled because the easy steps I planned to purchase were too steep for someone within my circle.

I had to change things like stringer height, tread width, rise, run, and angle; all-the-while, factoring in another’s input and abilities. How high could they lift their leg once they started walking again? What kind of rail could a disabled person grab? My design and construction required that inclusion to be useful and allow for diverse physical abilities.

The project came out great in the end. I prefer the custom steps over the pre-made ones, and my disabled loved one got up them safely. Building them took some research and extra work, but it allowed me to involve those with different perspectives in the process. My diversity and inclusion improved usability for everyone. Someone separated and isolated by standards and templates felt better, rather than taken for granted by what’s quick and convenient.

So my advice is this: when you want to make a change, you need to dig a bit deeper than the noticeable differences between us. Ensure you listen to everyone’s understanding and how those experiences provide a viewpoint and way of doing things outside the pattern. In that way, everyone can climb up to the view.

(U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith is assigned as the public affairs manager for the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center on McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base in East Tennessee.)