It took me a good few minutes to find my way out of Westminster underground station. When I did finally emerge to the surface, I found the houses of parliament towering above me. After a minute or so gathering my bearings, I was on my way. I roughly knew where I was going: past Westminster Abbey, then take a turning down one of the adjacent roads. As per usual, I got to the site of the venue ridiculously early. So early, in fact, that they organisers were still putting the chairs out (!)
The launch event for the 2013 disability history month was held on 19 November. I attended a similar event in 2011 (blog post), which I found thought provoking, but my diary conspired against me from attending last year. There were a number of reasons to go along to this event: one is personal, and another is professional (a third reason could be considered to be political).
The day kicked off with Richard Raiser playing a clip from a recent BBC two part documentary which described how the lives of people with disabilities had changed. I did manage to see the first episode, which was about the care system, but I didn’t get to see the second episode (and I had missed downloading it on iPlayer). The point was simple: we’re on the telly, and we’ve a right to be there.
Just like the last launch event, there were a number of speakers. The first speaker of the day was Kevin Courney from the National Union of Teachers. Representatives from unions featured heavily in the 2011 event, and this year was no exception. Teachers are, of course, likely to encounter people with disabilities and they, of course, may have disabilities themselves. Kevin drew our attention to some teaching resources that the unions had prepared for schools.
The second speaker of the day was Mike Oliver, who was introduced as a social model theorist. By way of detail, the social model is a way of looking at disability where people disabled not by their so called impairments, but instead by the society in which they inhabit. Mike touched upon history before speaking about themes such as choice, control and independent living. Mike’s underlined the significance of the current economic challenges.
The third speaker was Jan Walmsley, formerly from The Open University (an institution that has now over ten thousand students with disabilities). Jan is a part of the Social History of Learning Disability research group (a research group that I hadn't heard of before). The group was established in 1994 and one of its objectives is to share memories and experiences by people and for people by publishing life stories.
The two final speakers of the day were Jackie Downer and Kirsten Hearn. Jackie described the importance of support workers and that technology can be a lifeline. Kirsten gave an impassioned speech, emphasising the importance of rights, and echoing points earlier points by saying that it was liberating that it, ‘wasn’t me that was the problem, but the world’.
One of the first points to be made was by Baroness Dame Campbell who emphasised the importance of political lobbying. An audience member asked about the credibility of the social model, and whether we ought to be thinking in terms of a ‘post-social model’. (The questioner mentioned the name of an academic called Tom Shakespeare). This struck me as a difficult question to answer, and a quick internet search led me to a research paper (University of Leeds) that takes quite a bit of reading. This question points us towards the growing discipline of disability studies.
Towards the end of the panel session, the issue of teaching (and teachers) was again returned to. I seem to remember a reference to the learning resources that were mentioned during the start of the speeches. The point for these were simple: there is a potential to ‘educate out’ discrimination, (or to normalise difference) at an early age.
An alternative perspective
The final speech of the day a speech wasn’t really a speech at all. It was a stand-up comedy performance by comedienne Liz Carr. I hadn’t seen Liz before, but I had heard of her work through a comedy group called Abnormally Funny People. Unfortunately, I haven’t made too many notes during this part of the event, since I was laughing too much, but Liz did reference a recent challenge to the government’s bid to abolish the Independent Living Fund (BBC Website). I also remember a startling gag about the right to work assessments. This, to me, was the kind of comedy that cuts quickly to an issue and makes us think.
There was a palpable difference between the 2011 event that I attended and this event. The biggest difference, of course, reflects the change in the UK political landscape; there were many references to government cuts and the ways that the affect people with disabilities. We were encouraged to reflect on history and the lessons that it offers us. We also needed to be mindful of ‘what used to be’; stories of change, difference and individuality are important to remember and to keep. One thing I felt was a steely will to retain rights and fight for new ones.