Hello? HELLO?!? - The BADD entry 2008
It's been a long and decidedly wearing day, but we're drawing towards the end of the agenda now. In fact, the time has come for us to talk about the advisory committee stalls at Group Conference.
When I learn that the Wimmin's Committee is organising a talent show for delegates on the first night of conference, I am Even More Sorry Than Usual that I'm nowhere near fit enough to travel to Brighton myself. However, I rally briefly from this crushing disappointment to make an important point about Stamina And The Disabled Members Ouchy Rep.
I ask the representatives from the other committees to bear in mind that, if the disabled members stall is staffed - as it will be - by someone with chronic pain (yes: wave to the Boy Marmite, everyone...), then simply working at the stall all day will take every ounce of that rep's available stamina. And then some. Which means that, if the rep is invited out for the evening festivities and says that they can't attend, they mean they are physically incapable of attending. They don't mean that they're not sure whether they want to go, but they could probably be persuaded if only enough of you knock on their hotel door and try to win them round. In fact - I go so far as to say - repeated requests that they come with you, accompanied by unsubtle implications that they will be letting the side down if they don't, are actually discriminatory.
It's bad enough, I say, living day to day with massive amounts of pain and the consequent hugely reduced stamina levels. So just imagine how great the rep will feel if you simultaneously
- leave them with no option but to explain repeatedly and in gory detail exactly why they can't go with you; and
- remind them of what they're missing when they're lying on their hotel bed stuffing painkillers down their neck.
I then retire from the fray, quietly confident that I have got my point across.
Wrongly, as it turns out.
Weeks later, the draft minutes from that meeting ping into my email inbox. And I find - to my astonishment and rage - that I have been recorded as having raised concerns about the physical accessibility of the venue for the evening entertainment. An issue which, let me assure you, I never so much as touched on in passing.
I am rendered temporarily speechless.
And then I start to swear.
And I conclude that either I was speaking Swahili when I was making that particular point, or the message I was delivering was just so bloody unpalatable that the minute taker's brain simply refused to process it. (And she was sitting right next to me, so it's not as though she might not have heard me. I'm not exactly noted for low volume when I'm speaking. Particularly when I'm impassioned about what I'm saying.)
So. It would appear that physical barriers to access are something which people can get their heads round reasonably easily. Start talking about attitudinal barriers, though, and the shutters slam down. Hard.
I suspect - and I may be wrong - that this is because yer average normie regards physical barriers as being someone else's responsibility to resolve. But they're so convinced that their own attitude is completely inclusive towards disabled people that pointing out to them that it actually isn't is so damaging to their self-image that they just can't allow themselves to hear that message.
I was speaking in a meeting which was devoted to equality issues and to an audience composed entirely of people who believe strongly in the importance of equality. I was speaking to people who recognise that I've been doing this for a long time and know what I'm talking about, and who respect my professional expertise.
And I might as well have been talking to the wall.
So, if my voice wasn't heard in that meeting, how likely is it that disabled people's voices are ever heard in less friendly circumstances when they try to make a polite and reasoned point to non-disabled people about how disabling their attitudes towards us are? Having had a written record of how my own point was received, I have proof that the fact that people nodded in agreement and looked sage at the time had no bearing whatsoever on whether they really grasped the point I was making.
I find the implications of this downright chilling. Obviously, I amended the draft minutes quick smart. But that doesn't even come close to resolving the underlying problem. And, despite having wracked my brains for several weeks, I haven't yet been able to come up with so much as one single, solitary strategy for getting past non-disabled people's conviction that they know better than us whether or not their behaviour towards us is discriminatory.
Yes, ramps and 'terps and not distracting the assistance dog with an open can of Winalot are important. Of course they are. And, yes, it's good that most sensible people in this day and age not only understand that we have a right to these things, but will even go so far as to kick up a stink if they're not provided. But that's access. Not equality. Conflate the two at your peril.
Equality would be if the person towards whom my minor rant-ette was specifically aimed had suddenly thought, "Oh my God. I actually did that. I did. In Brighton. Last year. I was being nice. I thought. But it never occurred to me to stop and think that the nature of my colleague's impairment might have a serious impact on his capacity to come out for a drink with us. Now that I know he felt harassed by my behaviour, I feel dreadful. Well, I've learned something here today". And had thereafter - as the result of that sudden epiphany - genuinely treated disabled people as being of equal value to rather than as being physically, neurologically or psychologically the same as everybody else.