Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Losing focus

Focusing. Over the last couple of days, I’ve facilitated three separate focus groups. I often lead focus groups about a wide range of topics, typically addressing transportation issues, but these three all offered something very special.

The first was with a group of developmentally disabled men and women, most of whom were in their 20s and 30s, but the group included a few older participants. All of the participants were enthusiastic and excited to share their opinions, and the cash incentive certainly didn’t dissuade any of them from participating. I showered them with a series of questions and hypothetical scenarios. For example, I asked, “What would you do if you got on the wrong bus and ended up somewhere unfamiliar?” “Stay calm and don’t panic,” was the first reply. Some of the participants had difficulty responding to some of the questions (“To maintain your independence, how can you get information on your own about public transportation options?”), while others were eager to share their preferred destinations: Florida, Kentucky, and Africa.

The second focus group was with a group of unemployed or underemployed low income Spanish-speaking men and women. A market research firm with which I’m working made the arrangements for the facility, but I almost got into a fistfight with the facility director who claimed not to know that incentives were being provided to participants and that we were recording the discussion. We were kicked out because I started the discussion even though I was directed to wait while he contacted his supervisors in the state capital. He got a little nasty, but state employees are useless drones. They must posture – as he was doing – to be noticed and to prove they have some authority. Our focus group pranced out to an alternate facility across the street for two hours of multilingual babble. I hadn’t put my Bogota-based Spanish to such a test for a few years and my brain ached after the session.

Persons with physical disabilities comprised the selected population for the third focus group. Of the 15 or so participants, all but three had wheelchairs, and representation included persons with speech, visual and auditory disabilities. This focus group could have gone on for four hours, but I had to keep it to two. Everyone had something to say and say, everyone was raising a hand and another hand, and everyone wanted to revisit just one more point. They were great, and offered the ever powerful reminder that being disabled really sucks sometimes. I know I’m lucky that I’m not disabled, but I know that bad things happen and even my circumstances could change in the future. The big issue with them is that when you’re disabled, you can’t be spontaneous: you have to plan days ahead for any trips your making, any plans your confirming and any technology malfunctions. And you really have to rely on public transportation, which really sucks. Yes, I’m a transportation planner and I think public transportation sucks.

After the third focus group, I darted out the door bound for O’Hare, but was forced to join the slew of SUVs commuting home to their suburban Chicago garages in stop-and-go 20 MPH traffic. Now, after two glasses of white wine, a UAL chicken parmesan dinner and a presentation of Astronaut Farmer, I’m feeling pretty okay on my flight to San Francisco. The film, about a delusional man who builds a rocket in his farm and actually orbits Earth nine times (only to land a few miles from his home) is arguably the goofiest film I’ve ever seen. But hey – good for him.

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