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Viewing the World Through a Kaleidoscope

Learning from The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Patrick McCarthy

All of the fellows and staff standing in a large group against the wall with the RespectAbility logo all over it

Patrick McCarthy with RespectAbility Fellows and Staff

Rockville, Md., Sept. 13 – Do you remember playing with a kaleidoscope when you were a child? Or even recently? How about the excitement as the image changes and you gain a new perspective?

Patrick McCarthy speaking to RespectAbility Fellows seated around a large brown table

Patrick McCarthy speaking to RespectAbility Fellows

Patrick McCarthy, the CEO and President of The Annie E. Casey Foundation, brought RespectAbility Fellows and staff back to their childhoods. McCarthy reminded Fellows that the image changes as you turn it.

“It is all about how you use it and how you see it,” he said.

The ‘Kaleidoscope Perspective’ has played a significant role in how McCarthy guides The Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The Baltimore-based foundation is one of the largest in the United States, giving away more than $99 million dollars in 2015. As the website states, the foundation focuses on “strengthening families, building stronger communities, and ensuring access to opportunity, because children need all three to succeed.”

RespectAbility Fellow Emma Adelman and Patrick McCarthy talking in front of a RespectAbility banner

RespectAbility Fellow Emma Adelman and Patrick McCarthy

While McCarthy’ personal passion is working on the juvenile justice system, his clear focus is on changing how decisions are made. Instead of policies determined solely based on anecdotes, McCarthy would prefer to have decisions made with data.

He highlighted this issue by discussing the current opioid epidemic. For years there has been data surrounding the prevalence of opioid use and the wreckage it can leave in its path. Despite evidence of a brewing epidemic on our hands, policy makers chose to ignore opioid use in communities across the country. First responders and other emergency officials do not have enough Narcan™ (naloxone) to appropriately address the realities on the ground.

McCarthy asserts that treatment centers “may not work the first time, but we don’t invest in them the way we should.”

When we turn the kaleidoscope, we notice there is a significant race component behind the curtain of death and epidemic. Only when the opioid epidemic reached outside of minority populations and began to afflict white populations, did people in power begin to notice and take action. The data has been there; McCarthy argues that if our decision-makers would have looked at the statistics sooner, effective policies could have been implemented to save lives.

Patrick McCarthy speaking to RespectAbility Fellows seated around a large brown table

Patrick McCarthy speaking to RespectAbility Fellows

But, for McCarthy, data is not everything. If we turn the kaleidoscope once again, we can take the time to understand someone’s full story. Understanding the complexities of a person’s life is vital.

In terms of the opioid epidemic, we need to unravel the stories of people who are struggling with addiction or those who are in recovery. These compelling stories can better inform our policy and decision making process. McCarthy charges that we cannot just “draw caricatures” of people; we cannot make generalizations. We need to truly learn about each person and understand the messiness of life, he says.

At RespectAbility we have an affinity for statistics and evidence-based research. In general there is the impulse to try and help, to try to influence policy decisions, but without both the data and the human stories, we are not nearly as effective.

“Each of you come to your advocacy with your own experience – use yourself and your story in a strategic way,” McCarthy strongly encouraged, but then cautioned not to forget the data along the way.

RespectAbility Fellow Emma Adelman and Patrick McCarthy posing and smiling for a photo

RespectAbility Fellow Emma Adelman and Patrick McCarthy

In the disability community, we can benefit immensely from McCarthy’s advice. We need to remember to turn the kaleidoscope enough times to fully understand people’s stories and develop rich accounts so that they can be catalysts for change. If we can band together and create a common narrative supported by evidence-based research, we will be even stronger. By using the commonalities that exist in the disability community, we can have a strong impact on the policy being made. “Nothing about us without us!”


RespectAbility is a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for and with people with disabilities. Learn more about the National Leadership Program and apply for the next cohort! Contact [email protected] for more information.



Meet the Author

Emma Adelman

Emma Adelman is a Program Development & Fundraising Fellow. In addition to her development work, Adelman manages the organization’s Twitter account and contributes to the Born This Way #BTWchat Twitter chats. She is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College.

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