I’m a big fan of breaking down barriers. Passive barriers, to be precise. I’d never heard of them until recently. For a brief introduction, I quote from Ramit Sethi, who defines passive barriers like this in his guest post on Get Rich Slowly:

“Passive barriers are things that don’t exist, so they make your job harder. A trivial example is not having a stapler at your desk; imagine how many times a day that gets frustrating. For me, these are harder to identify and also harder to fix. I might rearrange my room to be more productive, or get myself a better pen to write with.”

Another good example of a passive barrier is a lack of knowledge. You don’t know how to use WordPress, so you never start a blog. You don’t know how to start your own business, so you stay in a job you feel ambivalent about.

By contrast, an active barrier is something that stands between you and what you want, be it an object or an outcome. For example, I noticed that I rarely ate the carrots I brought home from the store. I like carrots. Why wasn’t I eating them? Simply because Harris Teeter sells them in a non-resealable plastic bag. I didn’t like tearing into the bag, it was a pain to try and re-seal…and so I didn’t eat the carrots. To solve this problem, I put carrots in a Tupperware as soon as I bring them home from the store. I eliminated the active barrier between me and my carrot consumption. (My husband has even started eating them once they were in the Tupperware. No wonder the supply keeps running low…)

I give you this example because, more than likely, you have a similar problem in your own life. You have active and/or passive barriers standing between you and the life you want, and it seems easier just to say, “That’s the way things are” than to make a positive change. I could have just thrown up my hands and said, “Well, guess I won’t be buying carrots anymore!” Likewise, the person who wants to start a blog could throw up their hands and say, “Well, WordPress is too much for me…guess blogging isn’t in the cards.”

Today, I encourage you to dig deeper. When you’re on the brink of giving up, start asking, “Why?” instead. You may be facing a barrier, internal or external, that you didn’t know existed.

Passive barriers tend to be trickier, because they’re harder to identify. I’ve seen the power of passive barriers at L’Arche; specifically, in the way certain items broke them down and made home life much better. I think of Leo* in the days before we had him fitted for hearing aids. Without the aids, he couldn’t hear how loud he was, so he almost always spoke loudly. In turn, Leo’s vocal volume was very irritating to Pedro, another housemate. When Leo got hearing aids, he began speaking at a lower volume more often. The hearing aids give Leo and Pedro a better chance at a good relationship.

You wouldn’t think that something as small as a hearing aid would have such a dramatic effect…but it does. (One of my favorite memories of my time in L’Arche DC was the day I took Leo to pick up his hearing aids; he was so excited, because he knew that having them would break down a barrier between him and the rest of the world.) Likewise, you wouldn’t think that something as insignificant as lack of knowledge (in an internet-based age) would hold people back from achieving their dreams…but it does.

This being the case, I’m really enjoying Tammy Strobel’s Smalltopia (I’m on my second read-through now.) Why did I chose Smalltopia to be featured in our Store? Because it’s written in a deceptively simple, straightforward way that encourages your mental walls to come tumbling down.

For example, in her section on diversifying income streams, Tammy offers 10 ideas on how to diversify…and then she follows up with a money chart exercise. With that transition, she’s breaking down passive barriers. I might have read the section on diversifying your money and thought, “Oh, well, those are some great ideas, but I don’t know if they’d actually help.” The money chart exercise in the next section immediately challenges me to write down some specific numbers, and see what kind of income goal I could reach by diversifying.

As I wrote in the Store section, many people with disabilities are directed toward menial, repetitive jobs. By contrast, the people with disabilities who live at L’Arche DC are well-known local artists. Their paintings are displayed in galleries and community centers, in Starbucks and in local bookstores. They earn commissions from their work, and there’s a great deal of pride — for them and for me — in seeing their work exhibited. These artists have encouraged me to do work I love, and to have the courage to put it out into the world.

People with intellectual disabilities have an important lesson to offer those of us who struggle with passive barriers. So often, when we’re thinking of trying something new, we look at our liabilities and get discouraged. We focus on all the reasons why a dream or plan is unrealistic or ‘impossible.’

I’ve noticed that (if you will forgive the generalization) this seems to happen less for people with intellectual disabilities. There’s less resistance to possibility, perhaps because life with an intellectual disability is a daily exercise in the art of doing impossible things. Try getting along with an intellectual disability in a world that worships the intellect. Try believing that you’re ‘worth it’ in a world where many governments are cutting the funding you need to survive. Try taking a risk in a world that has made fun of you, made you feel less than ‘good enough’…a world where some people won’t even shake your hand because you’re visibly disabled.

The people I know at L’Arche live in this world, and yet they are not hardened by it.

They have kept their hearts open. I pray you do the same.




*Names have been changed.

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  1. Tiffany March 26, 2011 at 9:43 PM - Reply

    I forwarded this to nico. Fabulous 😀

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    • Caroline McGraw April 4, 2011 at 2:11 PM - Reply

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