June 8, 2020

The Theory of Everyone

Gates Scholar Meir Yishai Barth advances a new paradigm of inclusion
Barth '18 selected graduate study at Cambridge for its empirical rigor and history of excellence in accessibility.

What would a truly inclusive social paradigm be like—one that makes the most of everyone’s unique configuration of abilities? A passion to engage this question inspired Commonwealth Honors College alum Meir Yishai Barth ’18 to pursue graduate study in health, medicine, and society at Cambridge University. Barth has been awarded a Gates Scholarship to Cambridge to further his PhD research in sociology. He intends to evolve his advanced studies into a book project for popular consumption that he names The Theory of Everyone: a blueprint for a world in which everyone is supported to fulfill their potential.

Barth applied for the scholarship, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, because of the special connection he feels to Cambridge. “Stephen Hawking has been an idol of mine since I was six years old. I have this ambition to follow in Hawking’s wheeltreads,” relates Barth, who identifies as neuro-and physio-divergent. “So the title of my book is in homage to him, that he wanted to make a shift in a fundamental construct of cultural consciousness understandable to the public.” Barth relates that the protocols for the well-implemented accessibility services he benefited from at UMass were originally developed at Cambridge when Hawking became a member of faculty.

Barth and his course mates from Cambridge.

Barth was also inspired by his “extreme admiration” of Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation. Foundation trustees award Gates Scholarships based on the candidates’ intellectual ability, leadership capacity, and desire to use their knowledge to contribute to society.

So what is a Theory of Everyone? It evolved from Barth’s work for his honors thesis at UMass. “It is a blueprint I am developing of what a society looks like that is designed to promote cooperative synergy between abilities,” Barth explains, “and the completely new social structures that will facilitate such a world.”

An analogy Barthlikes to use is Marvel’s The Avengers, in which different members of the team have strengths and weaknesses that complement one another. “Everyone has something special to contribute to change the world around us,” he says. “Everybody is a genius, everybody has superpowers and their own unique challenges. The only question is, do they figure out what they are, and the right teams to use them in, for the right reasons? And that to me is the fundamental question of human existence for everybody through life.”

This new, inclusive paradigm involves leveraging assistive technology to help all people realize their best selves. “People have all kinds of hidden disabilities and inabilities,” Barth says. “I believe strongly that there is a combination of tools that can be taken in to become better versions of our own bodies and minds—and I believe in going on the quest for the best technological configuration to empower yourself.”

"Norms may be socially constructed but they impact people’s lives, and some people for all kinds of reasons diverge from those norms. They don’t adhere to them. And I am one of those people. I am not neurotypical. I am not physiotypical."

It is technology, Barth says, that has empowered him to create his career according to his own goals, drives, and values. “Philosophically, politically, and existentially, I consider myself a technocrat,” he explains. “In addition to having the right teachers and an amazing family, the number one thing that has empowered me in life is technology, from the walker and power chair I use to get around, to the screen reader apps on my phone that read documents to me, to the voice-recognition software I use to complete projects, and the recording software I use take records of lectures because I can’t read or write.”

Through the BDIC (Bachelor’s Degree with Individual Concentration) program, Barth constructed an individualized degree around the study of social philosophy and communication theory—study that includes deep focus on psycholingistics, disability studies, and educational philosophy. He credits part of his success to the “empowerment infrastructure” he experienced at UMass, including his mentors Aisha Murdaugh in Disability Services, professors Briankle Chang and Stephen Olbrys Gencarella in the Department of Communications, and Associate Dean Alexandrina Deschamps and senior lecturer Brion Dulac in the Commonwealth Honors College. “I had the mentors that I needed to find what my abilities were and the best tools for expressing them. To have the right team for leveraging our abilities will be sociologically integral to human life in the future.”

“UMass prepared me to be a scholar at one of the highest-level academic institutions in the world,” Barth says. “I’m going to do great things with my life.”