A Visit To the Mars Colony
By: Gary Wynn Kelly, and Penny Zibula
At the end of 2005, I was asked to participate in writing a proposal in
support of a Rehabilitation Engineering and Research Center, RERC. I
found myself in the midst of a stormy effort to develop competing
proposals for this potential Center, and frustrated by the inability of
most participants to understand the core issues that should be at the
heart of any such effort. I shared my frustration with Penny Zibula,
who I had only come recently to know. It was out of these talks that
the germ of an idea for this paper was born. It was originally a
letter to David Ross, expressing our feelings and thoughts about what
passes for rehabilitation research in America. It has evolved and
matured in the time since. Yet, the basic paper has not changed, so I
invite readers to share this effort, and offer comment, should any
choose to do so.
In order to get the concepts across to persons who have never had the
blindness experience, we chose to involve them in an exploration of
what it might be like, if there were colonists on Mars, who came to
have a very different experience in life from those left on Earth, who
never had the Mars experience. What might those colonists wish to
tell those on Earth, who reluctantly support the colony? This creates
a fantasy experience that engineers and scientists believe they can
understand, and provides a fresh opportunity to have them understand
what some important relationships might be in working with others with
vastly differing experiences, needs and values.
In order to give this paper a context, I am including a word about
myself and Penny. As a person who has been blind for most of my
life–some 44 years at the time this paper was written. I have
experienced all levels of vision, from having corrected vision in a
“normal” range as a child, to currently having only light perception.
I was statutorily blind from age 11, and had usable residual vision for
the next 25 years. In the years since then, I have had mostly light
perception. I have experienced widely varying levels of vision at
various times. I have had to adapt to each for a time, in whatever
way was possible. Therefore, I address you at one level, as a member
of the blind population–and one who has shared in many experiences
common to those living with blindness. After graduating from the
Georgia Institute of Technology with a B.S. in Psychology, I have
enjoyed a career as a human factors engineer and research scientist
studying the disability experience. I later received my M.A. in
Psychology from the University of Hawaii, where I used a cross cultural
approach to the study of the disability experience from the perspective
of persons having a disability. Most of my career has been as a
research scientist and consultant, in rehabilitation, and more
recently, the Executive Director of Blind Wisdom, Inc. In my work, I
emphasize the importance of understanding the experiences as
participants to the blindness experience have them. We are
participants in an experience not shared by the dominant
population–they are observers to our experience. This cultural
sciences perspective helps to understand what are often vastly
differing views of the blindness experience.
Penny Zibula is also blind, and has been for many years. Penny has a
BA in Applied Social Science from Sir George Williams University in
Montreal, and a certificate in Public Relations Management from McGill
University. Her work experiences include Project Assistant for the
American Foundation for the Blind as part of a Braille literacy
campaign, Public Education Coordinator for the Center for the Visually
Impaired and Research Health Science Specialist for the Atlanta VA
Medical Center. For nine years, she hosted and produced a weekly talk
show on a public television station in Knoxville, Tennessee. Her
volunteer efforts include teaching computer technology and social
skills in an after-school program for students who are blind and
visually impaired, acting as a mentor to one of the students in the
program, and serving on several disability-related committees.
Preparing for a Visit to the Mars Colony
In order to begin, imagine that in a future world, the United States
has founded a Mars colony. The citizens of this colony have been
receiving considerable support from earth for a long time. The Bureau
for Mars Affairs, is caught in the middle of a dilemma–the colonists
of Mars are complaining loudly through all channels available to them,
about the inferior quality of assistive research and development, R&D,
that is to support the colony, while there are powerful political
groups on earth that wish to eliminate the funding of the Mars colony
effort. In fact, the past effort has provided minimal benefit to the
Mars colonists, which is an agreed upon sore point for both sides.
There the agreements end. The Mars colonists want a more relevant and
appropriate effort to support their activities, as they cannot survive
without further support. Conservative earth groups wish all support to
end, or to be reduced substantially.
The Bureau is caught in the middle. It has decided to create a new
Institute of Mars Science and Engineering. Imagine that you are among
the elite academics of distinction who are proposing to run this new
Institute. There are competing interests, but they are not all known
The Mars colonists are contacting you directly, in hopes of finding out
if this effort is going to be even slightly better than the last one,
which was 30 years of largely, non productive funding for the careers
of scientists and engineers. They hope to establish a meaningful
relationship, that will yield rich benefits to both the new Institute,
and the Mars colonists. The following is a letter received by the
distinguished personages meeting to develop their proposal for the new
As you read this letter, determine for yourself, the degree to which
the arguments are reasonable. Are you prepared to side with the Mars
Colonists–or the groundhogs of Earth?
Dear Distinguished Scientists and Engineers,
. . . Skipping 6 paragraphs of introductory flattery, opening
statements, and credentials; we now continue with the substance of the
We wish to set forth in this document, our perceptions of what will
constitute a fair and reasonable research effort. We feel that in the
past, we have had little say in such matters, so we grow impatient with
the usual processes. Those efforts, we feel, have been well outlined in
studies you yourselves have conducted. We wish to set forth some new
guidelines and ideas for how to work together successfully. In order to
facilitate such an effort, we are laying out some general points at
issue when interacting with previous efforts such as the one you
propose. Acknowledging these perceptions will help any future effort
1. Our experience here in the Mars Colony is *alien* to yours, but it is
not a “less than” experience. We are alien to your understanding, but
every bit as human and deserving of human respect in any future efforts
towards a joint program. Understand that mutual respect is a necessity
for the success of this relationship, and not an option. There can be no
paternalism–paternalism neither respects our innate humanness nor the
true nature of our experience.
2. You have no method there on earth of ever directly understanding our
experience. You can imagine all you like, but your imagination will fall
far short of our most mundane reality. Life here is just not what you
imagine it to be, so talk to us first–and let us guide your
imaginations. Open communication too, is a requirement for furthering
mutual benefit. The people of earth must admit, to themselves as well as
us, that they cannot properly conceptualize our experience, as it is
clearly outside of their experience. We do share common traditions, and
we feel that because of that history, we can act as your best guides and
teachers. Only we have actually participated in the experience–you only
have a remote semantic knowledge of what it is not.
3. We believe we can prove that last point by getting your
acknowledgement to a few simple facts. Nearly every colonist sent here
to Mars finds the adjustment to be a tough one. There are too few who
ever can take up Mars life without having years of personal and
community adjustments first–to say nothing of their adjustment to
working here on Mars! You complain of the cost of supporting so many
unemployed people, and the cost of educating them, but none of those
complaining are volunteering for the experience either.
It can take years of experience to conceptualize the nature of life here
in the Mars colony. The people coming from earth are poorly equipped to
cope with life here, and they most often experience emotional and social
trauma while they adapt. Many adapt poorly. And, you do not take them
back! You expect us to provide “peer support”, and accept them into our
community without reservation. We mostly do that, and this helps to hide
the difficulty from both you and us.
It also introduces another set of problems for us, and ultimately for
you. You quickly become irate over the fact that colonists out here
never speak with just one voice on any issue. You forget that all of our
colonists came from earth–from your populations, with all of their
prejudices, conceptual lacks, and diverse behaviors–which often are
exaggerated by the Mars experience. These people do not come equipped to
speak in any terms other than those you taught them. They are observers
to what life in the Mars Colony is, and they have the opinions of
observers–not participants. The new arrivals talk the same talk as
other earthbound populations. It takes them time to conceptualize their
experience, and learn to think and talk about their real experiences,
and not just your prejudicial views of that experience. They have to
participate first, and gain experiences as participants, that help them
to see that they must change their priorities in life, their values, and
their desires for a future. To the extent that they can do this, they
are made over by the Mars experience.
New colonists complain a lot. You often hear their complaints first, as
they are closest to you in their perceptions and values. They still talk
in terms you can understand and relate to easily. But, they cannot yet
talk to you about the Mars experience, because they have not yet had it.
Getting to Mars is a rough trip, true. Then the fun begins–if you can
let go of all prior conceptualizations of what the experience should be,
and change all of those earthbound values and baggage you brought along.
The average new groundhog from earth has no clue yet as to how to live
on Mars. They run a risk of getting killed, because they cannot yet
automatically and always know to plan everything first, before setting
foot outside. They lack the organizational skills to set priorities,
always plan first, and know what is important, and what is not. People
new from earth lack such habits. Further, you on earth have never
understood how we acquire them, and that would help us to get colonists
to care for themselves more quickly.
Thus, the Mars Colony is made up of many voices–some sound just like
those on earth, and many sound so alien, that you can scarcely believe
that they are from humans born of earth blood. Mars makes us alien to
you, but we know each other as human–to us, it seems that you are the
aliens, especially when you fail so completely to understand us, our
circumstances, our needs, our values, and our desires, which, in the
end, are not so different from your own.
4. This is another issue with us. There is much effort on earth that
goes into the prevention of people going to the Mars Colony. Well, we
can understand and appreciate that to a point, but we protest the cost
assignments you make. Your efforts to prevent further colonists from
arriving should not be equated to supporting the Colony itself! We get
no direct benefit from those expenditures, though we agree that over
time, you will. Please do not consider such projects to prevent
colonists from going to Mars as equal to helping the colonists already
here to participate fully in Mars life. We would like to see that
recognized, and a balance brought about in the efforts put into truly
helping the Mars Colony.
5. Historically, projects to benefit the Mars Colony have been initiated
by earth engineers and scientists. It has long been recognized that many
of these are solutions looking for problems on Mars to benefit those
peddling them. Often, the earth scientists work together to gather a
collection of newbie colonists around them to cheer for such an effort.
The technology is developed, and after much expenditure, trials on
earth, sent to Mars for implementation. Generally, this has met with
disastrous results. The products fail to get any use within the Mars
Colony after the first enthusiastic reception. Regardless of how many
times this has failed, earth institutions insist on repeating the
pattern. If earth and the Mars Colony are to have any joint future
programs, they must be prepared to pledge excellence in all
contributions to the effort. Hidden agendas, personal preferences, and
pet projects aside, the real test of any effort has to be the approval
of well-adjusted residents of the Mars Colony. Without that, all your
efforts are hardly more than welfare for academic interests.
You doubtless think it important to fulfill your dreams, but your dreams
for us, are not the same as our dreams for ourselves. We wish to have
your support in creating tools that will help us to fulfill our own
dreams for ourselves. We believe we can do a far better job of that than
any of you.
The long and short of any effort comes down to one irrefutable
statement–you cannot compel any resident of the Mars Colony to use any
technology or system you develop. You can spend enormous sums of money,
gather overwhelming public opinion behind the effort, and even mandate
that such technology shall be dumped on all colonists here on Mars. At
the end of the day, no one has to use it. Such failed efforts have left
many persons on earth embarrassed in past years. Those are earth
failures–not the failures of those of us who live in the Mars Colony.
6. The Mars Colony cannot just go away. It is here to stay. There has
always been a “Mars Colony”–it was just called different things in
different times. It is always an artifact of human civilization. You can
only avoid having a Mars Colony if you are prepared to kill every
potential colonist. That contradicts any notion of civilization, so
there will always be a “Mars Colony”. The only question before each of
you, is what are you going to do about that? You can appreciate the
diversity of the Mars experience, respect it, embrace it for what it can
offer you, and you can build systems and technologies that bring those
of us who live in the Mars Colony into daily interactions with you, so
that you can share our ideas of what we want to build for ourselves. We
are no less civilized, and no less able to dream than any of you. If we
can learn to work together, we both have much to gain.
Remember, the fact that Western civilizations on earth have always
produced equivalents of the Mars Colony says much more about your
culture than ours. That those colonies tend to have similar
characteristics should interest earth researchers greatly.
7. When does a Mars Colonist become a Mars Colonist? This is another
difficult issue for the people of earth. Your institutions constantly
ship more Colonists to us, and blithely generate more statistics as to
the numbers, nature, and expected XXX of the Colonists. At one level,
you acknowledge that new persons to the Colony cannot be expected to be
productive Colonists, but at others, you contradict that knowledge by
insisting that the experiences of any new colony member are
representative and valid for all colony members. It is unimaginable to
us as to how you could ever do this. It is most irrational, and has
contributed to continuous confusion on your part. You colonize us with
people who think just like you do, then gain their opinion of the colony
and all its workings, then damn us for the fact that we appear to be as
deficient in many areas of endeavor as you always knew we were.
Understand that we have a different perspective that must be respected.
A Mars Colonist is only a Mars Colonist when that person has met the
challenges of life on Mars, come to understand the changed
circumstances, needs, and values of the Mars Colony, and ascribes to
those changed values as essential to successful living in the Colony.
Citizenship in the Mars Colony is earned, and never conferred by an
outside party. A Mars Colonist knows when she/he has become a successful
Listen carefully to the colony members you send us. They argue
vehemently that they are not part of the Mars Colony for a long time.
You have heard them, but you have already condemned them to the Colony,
so while you hear them, you do not listen. You simply shake your heads,
and claim they are in denial–as though they can truly doubt the nature
of their very senses.
What such new colony members are telling you is as plain as sunshine.
They are not prepared to live with the circumstances of Mars, meet the
needs of Mars, and certainly do not wish to change their values, and
become in harmony with those of us living the Mars life. They are making
the distinction for themselves, and you are choosing to ignore
their statements as valid.
We respect the statements of all members of our Colony. We respect the
integrity of the statements of new members who say that they are not yet
prepared to accept a life sentence to the Mars Colony. We respect the
circumstances, needs, and values of earth, too–so we naturally feel
that this should be reciprocated in all interactions.
8. The people of earth, who are perfectly comfortable with the democracy
afforded you through majority rule, cannot yet imagine why to us, your
majority rule is often indistinguishable from tyranny. We Colonists of
Mars amount to less than 1% of the total population of your society. Our
circumstances, needs, and values are often vastly different from yours,
and yet through majority rule, we are constantly dismissed as
inconsequential, a special interest group, or just lumped into a general
category where other forgotten minorities are placed. We are told, and
wish to believe that there are benefits to us in supporting a democratic
process–but that process too often supports policies and practices that
are counter to our interests. Your policies and practices often limit
Mars Colonists from participating in key areas of employment, community,
or even in personal development, and we have no meaningful voice in
either making or abolishing such restrictions. We strain to maintain
mutual respect for institutions that serve to support our minority
status, and deprive us from achieving the benefits open to your members.
When this is combined with paternalism, and a general lack of respect
for ourselves as persons, the result is either anger, or a distancing
from those producing the unpleasant state of affairs.
9. It has long been a practice on earth to consider cost effectiveness
when defining programs and promoting engineering and science in the
Colony. We understand the desirability of this approach from the
perspective of an earthside institution, while we also object to its
continuance in any relationship built on mutual respect. The ultimate
cost effective solution for the Mars Colony is to simply destroy all
members of the Mars Colony. Since no civilized society could ever do
this, it leaves the dominant culture in control of precisely what will,
or will not be done that is less abhorrent than that ultimate
alternative. We are expected to be grateful for our survival and the
tolerance shown us in permitting us to eke out a living with the poor
tools we are given.
We are first denied equal participation in your economy, and in your
society, then given second rate technologies and systems with which to
compete, which requires that we be subsidized in order to afford
ourselves even those minimal opportunities, and then we are berated for
our lack of independence, self sufficiency, and general failure as a
population to contribute substantially to the society that excludes us.
As scientists and engineers, you perhaps feel you can do little to
change that status, but you can appreciate it, and give us far better
tools that meet our needs, and are designed according to *our*
circumstances, and not yours. Humility is far more appropriate when you
are but an observer, and trying to advise a participant as to what
she/he should do next–especially when the outcome has an impact for the
participant, and probably not for you.
Additionally, you have the option as observers to involve yourselves in
many other aspects of life–you are not participants in our life, but
your own. Naturally, we occupy only one small professional niche in your
lives. Our lives as participants are not so partitioned or boxed in
compartments. We live in the ecology of the Mars Colony, so what you do
out there, has an impact on *all* of our systems. Your interventions are
not limited to one incident, or one interaction. Those interventions
create effects that are experienced throughout our Colony.
10. Previous efforts to form partnerships in research and development
with the Mars Colony have encountered an issue basic to science itself.
It is axiomatic that all science must begin with description of a
phenomena first. When there is sufficient rich description, explanations
emerge for the how and why of the phenomena. With those explanations,
comes the opportunity to consider what interventions may be possible.
Earth science, when applied to the Mars Colony, ignores the basic
tenants of science. Most often, the scientists and engineers have an
intervention in mind when they start the project–they “propose” it as
though it were already well supported by basic description. This is
seldom true. Most projects fail because of this fact. The sampling was
in error when gathering the initial description, or the description was
inadequate to support the explanations claimed, and thus, the
intervention has no chance of success.
Over the years, sonic and laser guidance systems, tactile displays, and
other foolishness has been dumped on the Mars Colony as the final word
in what will solve our various problems in achieving productive and
enriched lives. When those projects failed, no one but the residents of
the Mars Colony was held to be accountable. No earth scientist or
engineer ever acknowledges that bad science led to the failure. Worse
yet, as there is no such acknowledgement, further efforts often
replicate the same experiments on the Mars Colony, with total reliability.
Again, no endeavor of any significance, in regard to science and
engineering for the Mars Colony can succeed without our providing you
the rich description you must have. You cannot gain it in any other way.
Even if you had a camera system that could watch us 24-7, you would
still likely fail, as you would miss the significance of many of our
actions, and only see the action, and not the process that created that
action. Our experience is too alien to yours for you to use your
earthside rules and culture to interpret it with any validity at all.
Returning from Mars to our more immediate concern, we want to bring
back with us a few key considerations. The Mars Colony thought game
is chosen to emphasize the key relationships that must exist between
any research and development effort and those in the population who
are to benefit from the effort. The key considerations are mutual
respect, open communication, and a sense of excellence in our shared
endeavors. America cannot do meaningful research without attracting,
maintaining, and sustaining the goodwill and appreciation of those who
are expected to benefit–participants to the blindness experience.
For there ever to be change, the Mars Colonists themselves will have to
create it. The interests of the people on Earth are just too
different, when viewed from a daily living perspective. Nonetheless,
both Mars Colonists and the populations of Earth need one another, and
since the people of Earth are less able to comprehend the life of a
Mars Colonist, than a Mars Colonist is able to comprehend the life of a
person on Earth, it becomes obvious as to us that the Mars Colonists
must make a greater effort to create the change that must occur for
there ever to be a future that includes our dreams.
Blind Wisdom, Inc. has been created as one instrument of change. The
change being implemented by Blind Wisdom is the inclusion of persons
who are blind into every aspect of Research and Development, R&D, for
those of us who daily experience blindness. This departs radically
from prior efforts in nearly all respects.
If you are ready to participate in an organization that intends to
conduct its daily activities with mutual respect, open communications,
and a sense of excellence in all activities, then perhaps you will
consider volunteering your valuable time to BWI, and its mission.
Please consider what you have read, and contact us with your decision.