What I thought would be a regular Wednesday afternoon turned into one of the most educational and eye-opening days I’ve had in a long time. Sitting at a table with the Disability Action Society at Balcony, I’m not even looking down at the extensive list of questions I had prepared: I’m just listening, trying to understand as much as I can, to take in as much as I can. And I’m slowly coming to the sad realisation that before this day, I knew absolutely nothing about disability, disabled people, or the issues that they face. That these issues are important, and unfair, but nobody, except disabled people themselves, talks about them.
It’s currently Disability History Month, a month designed to celebrate how disabled people fought to gain their rights and recognition, to educate people on what kind of activism and action had to take place before the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995, on how they fought to gain access to healthcare and become deinstitutionalised. However, Disability History Month can sometimes be misinterpreted. Inga Reichelt, a lovely, incredibly well-spoken and articulate young woman, is sitting across from me trying to explain this to me. “There is so much political action behind disabled people’s rights and recognition”, she says, “but whenever they do any kind of awareness week or campaign it’s just about ‘oh, let’s become more aware about this condition!’”. Inga doesn’t believe this kind of awareness will change much. Emily James, sitting next to me, agrees: “Making people aware of our different conditions doesn’t mean they will necessarily value us as human beings”.
Mostafa Attia, a sweet, soft-spoken man, explains that awareness can actually be very valuable, if it’s focused on creating awareness on how society and the way it’s structured is negatively affecting disabled people. “It takes time to change our culture, how we look at disabled people, and how we think about barriers – whether physical, social, or barriers relating to stigma… We need more awareness, we need the community to get involved, and we each have a role to do”.
The Disability Action Society is structured around the Social Model of Disability. Peadar O’Dea, a Disability Studies student, explains the concept to me. He says that this model defines the word ‘disabled’ not in the sense of the impairment the person has, but in the way that person becomes disabled through society’s inability to accommodate to their needs, and provide support. Peadar’s disability, therefore, is not his visual impairment: it’s the barriers imposed on him by society, like the inability to access ATM machines. Inga explains it beautifully: “It’s about social oppression. Even if people think that a particular condition is very disabling, I would argue that it’s never the condition, it’s the world that doesn’t take account of the condition and its needs.” It’s also about the stigma surrounding disability. Inga has cerebral palsy, and she explains that while it can sometimes cause a lot of back pain, many people without cerebral palsy get back pain, too, but they are not constantly portrayed as suffering. “I think what I suffer from the most is people’s negative attitudes, their low expectations of me due to my condition, the lack of wheelchair access, the lack of accessible public transport… All that type of stuff is what we would call disability.”
Ultimately, this is about basic human rights. It’s about providing everybody with the same access to education, healthcare and job opportunities. And although many of these rights do exist in legislative form, this does not mean they are exercised. “Rights without resources are a cruel joke”, Inga says. And it’s true. Steve Graby explains, “even if there’s no law saying disabled people aren’t allowed access to the community, if someone can’t get the support from social services to have a personal assistant to help them get out of bed in the morning, get their clothes on and get out of the house, then, realistically, they don’t have the right to access the community”.
When you can’t enter the Edward Boyle library because of constant construction work blocking the wheelchair access; when you can’t reach the location of a meeting because of a broken lift; when you don’t know if you’re able to participate in certain societies’ activities because they don’t provide the right information you need to know if you’ll physically be able to withstand them – do you really have equal rights and equal access to education as non-disabled people?
If my afternoon with the Disability Action Society taught me anything, it’s that this is just the tip of the iceberg: this is an incredibly complex set of issues that have to do with history, cultural values, the language we use to talk about them, and lack of awareness, to name a few. We need to start thinking about these issues, however, and, as Mostafa says, getting involved and playing our role as best we can. To me, it seems quite simple: we need to start treating disabled people’s issues with the same level of concern that we treat other minorities’. A good start would be attending some of the society’s events that they’re putting on for Disability History Month. I would strongly encourage everyone to have a look at the Leeds University Disability Action Society Facebook page to find out what these are, attending some of these events, and beginning to engage in discussion. Because we shouldn’t just leave it all up to disabled people. We all need to do this; we all need to talk about it. It’s the only way progress has ever worked.