Disability Awareness isn’t just important for non-disabled people. Alex Foster, a Volunteer Support Worker for Toucan Diversity, explores her identity within the disability community, exposing the myth of the disability hierarchy.
Following the success of Netflix Documentary ‘Crip Camp’, and in response to the current global pandemic, #CripCamp2020 has recently been created to bring together the Disability Community with a series of webinars focusing on different disability rights issues.
A summer camp training programme for social justice? Sounds like something out of a comic book. Intrigued, I registered and was pleased to learn it wasn’t limited to just the US. The first session was all about ‘Disability Community, Culture & Identity’.
Each of the speakers was an advocate for disability rights in the US, and had campaigned or raised awareness through their work in the field. It was a shame I couldn’t have watched along live due to the time difference, but watching the recording was just as engrossing, as they each spoke assuredly of their experiences of discrimination, of finding community, and finding their voice to advocate for themselves and others. I resonated most with Haben Girma, a Deaf blind lawyer. Although of course we both have totally different impairments, the way she spoke was so impassioned and accessible that I couldn’t help but be drawn to her story in particular. The exuberant humour of Comedian Maysoon Zayid was plain to see, and I’m sure reflected the general outlook on life of many taking part. KR Liu brought insight and authority when speaking about her working life as Head of Brand Accessibility at Google. Each complimented the other during discussions.
In between questions the audience was given ‘journal prompts’ to write and reflect on their own personal experience. Something which I will attempt now:
1️⃣ How do you define disability community?
A community of people from all walks of life brought together by a shared experience of their impairment and the disabling impact of society as a whole. A place where barriers are broken down, and everyone is accepted.
Speaking honestly, it’s not something I felt I could be a part of in my childhood, ignorantly- I felt like I was above the summer activity camps and meet ups via charities like Whizz-Kidz. It wasn’t for me, I didn’t need it, because I was only mildly disabled. I didn’t use a wheelchair all the time, I didn’t go to special school, I didn’t really have a large group of disabled friends. I didn’t know how to talk to more severely or differently disabled people, and I was afraid to try. It’s like I felt I was stuck halfway between my “normal” friends and these “special needs” strangers. But I didn’t really understand at the time, that I have always been a part of the disability community whether I choose to see it or not. In seeking to better understand my disability and make the world a place that accepts it, I cannot stand alone, and that’s where community comes in.
2️⃣ What does it mean to you?
It’s quite new to me, I’ve always thought my cerebral palsy was my problem to tolerate, to work around, my challenge to overcome. Getting more involved in Disability advocacy has made me see that I don’t need to be alone, I can support others fighting the same battle, indeed, it’s almost my responsibility! It’s a battle much bigger than just ourselves.
3️⃣ What cultures or communities have shaped your identity?
I work in the heritage sector, so definitely the museums/heritage/conservation community.
My group of friends at uni, the “Egyptology Crew” was probably the first time I felt fully part of a group, accepted for who I was. Still going strong 10 years later!
I can see a lot of the Crip Camp group would describe themselves as ‘multiple minorities’ e.g. disabled/woman/black/brown/trans/bi/non-binary etc. It’s important to reflect how these parts of ourselves impact on our lived experience, and sometimes stack up to make overcoming barriers more of a challenge.
4️⃣ Do they ever overlap?
Sometimes. I’m hoping to overlap the disability community with heritage, so work on access to heritage, access audits or similar.
I’ll round off my thoughts with my favourite quotes from the session:
Quotes on Community
I have cerebral palsy. I thought people with cerebral palsy who didn’t walk were lazy. I really believed in the disability hierarchy. That I was smarter than you because I was verbal. [That] I had to wear heels and be in pain. So when I discovered the disability community first of all I learned how to stop being ableist but I also learned how to be more comfortable and how to live a better life and that it was okay to say, I’m tired, and that it was okay to say or demand accommodations.Maysoon Zayid on discovering the Disability Community
Community. What does it mean to me? I grew up as a Deaf blind student in a sighted hearing mainstream public school. Most of the students around me were very different. And it took time to connect with my disability identity and in middle school like lots of other middle schoolers I was very interested in being cool and normal. That’s not actually helpful. But at middle school that is all I knew.Haben Girma on ‘Community’ as a concept
Quotes on being a ‘multiple minority’
I’m also aware of the fact that being a woman with a disability makes it three times more likely that I could get assaulted in my lifetime. Being a woman of colour means I’m likely to get paid less than other women. So my disability experience is intricately tied to the fact that I’m a Muslim in a country where the most powerful people are screaming, screaming bigotry at us, and saying that we should be sent back there to our own countries.Maysoon Zayid on being a ‘multiple minority’
When you fit into multiple minority groups, it is hard to know. Is it because you’re black? Is it because you’re a woman? Is it because you’re disabled? Is it because of all three? How do all three intersect and form enormous barrier that — it is very difficult to pass. It was incredibly frustrating. The people in multiple minority groups right now during the pandemic are facing the struggle in a deeper and even more frustrating way. And I’m– I’m hopeful that some day we’ll have a future where people are no longer assumed to be incompetent just because they’re disabled or a woman or a person of colour.Haben Girma on employability, and ‘multiple minorities’ during the COVID-19 pandemic
Quotes on accepting your disabled identity
I started to insert myself and my story– in what I wanted to see, change, from [just] ‘hearing access’ to the struggles I faced, and when I did that, more people felt comfortable with coming to me and talking about their challenges with their disability because hearing loss is not very visible.KR Liu on accepting your own disability
This idea that there are two types of people, dependent and independent. It’s not true. All of us are interdependent. We all have times when we depend on other people. A lot of you like drinking coffee. Very few of you grow your own coffee beans. We depend on other people to grow our food and that’s okay as long as we’re honest about the fact that we’re all interdependent.Haben Girma on interdependence
Quotes on disability in your profession
But for me, my role really was inspired to go into marketing because in advertising, in content and media, I wasn’t seeing disability being represented in a way that it is– should be represented which is very diverse and different ages and races and sexual orientation and backgrounds and I wanted to change that because less than 2% of people with disabilities are represented in the media. But the way to change that was to have that perspective at the table.KR Liu on disability representation in the media
Though each of these sessions is mainly centred on the American perspective, this first one has helped me understand how important good disability awareness really is. Only understanding one disability is like trying to paint a rainbow with just one colour. You can get different shades, but it’s not a true representation of the real thing. Using more “colours” impacts not only the disability community, but also equips anyone who wants to advocate for change and for disability equality. To find out more about Toucan Diversity’s training delivery check us out: we offer both Disability Equality Training and Disability Awareness Training.
This post was originally published on 1st June 2020 by one of our Volunteer Support Workers, Alex Foster on her blog ‘Tales From The Chair’.