A Simple Question

No, this blog has not petered out!  I’ve spent most of the last four weeks away from my desk both metaphorically and literally and I’m still trying to catch my breath from all that’s happened.  It’s been a whirlwind of a month, there’s a lot for me to reflect on and thus there will be plenty of writing to come in the next few weeks.  I’m not going to do any kind of previewing, if only because I have so many different ideas and thoughts whizzing around in my brain that very few of them have crystalised into anything close to coherent thoughts.  A couple have though, and I’ll start there.  It’s as good a place as any!

A couple of weeks or so ago, I was lucky enough to spend some time in the Orkney Islands with one of the choirs I sing with.  It was a wonderful trip and while the scenery, music, history and the fact that the entire place seems to be one enormous archaeological dig site were all amazing, a small detail may be the most personally important thing I took from the whole adventure.  I noticed it early when chatting briefly with a few people on mainland Orkney, but then I spent some time on Papa Westray (which I’ll call Papay after this) and it became so noticeable that it left me rather jarred.  It was a simple question that people asked on first meeting members of the choir…

“And what do you do?”

This question in itself is not at all remarkable.  Wanting to know what someone does for work or how they occupy their time is a standard introductory question in most circles, but for me as a disabled person it was a weird liberation to be asked it, and for it to be asked of me in the same breath as my choral colleagues.  The unspoken, automatic assumption that I was in some form of meaningful employment by Papay residents was something I am neither used to or expectant of, and I think I’m not alone in this.  In the wider western world there is a subtly different question which one hears much more often if you’re disabled…

“Do you work?”

Now, to be clear, the question in itself is not a bad one.  But as a disabled person this is the question you’ll hear much more often than the one I heard on Papay.  Indeed it might be the only one you hear.  And that is the problem, it is a lowering of expectations around the competence and independence of those with disabilities.  There’s an implicit assumption and prejudice within it that disabled people are not expected to work, or that if they do work, that they are not expected to work to any sort of high achieving levels.  We tend to be seen as either too ill, sick, physically feeble or mentally impaired (often with not a shred of evidence of this last one – simply that wheelchair equals brain injury *cringe*), or that adapting a workplace to allow qualified, competent, disabled employees to work there is simply too difficult or even dangerous.  This second category has been summed up by the case of Louis Makepeace who claims he’s been snubbed by a local college because as someone with dwarfism he’s too short to participate in their cookery course.  The college in question has since denied this, but the fact that to most disabled people Louis’ claim is entirely believable at first blush shows how much attitudes around disabled people in working environments need to change and radically improve.

Disabled people in the UK today are faced with a culture that doesn’t seem able to cope with the idea that disability is not a monolith, it is not a category, it is not a simple yes or no answer.  Disability is personal, immensely varied, complex and unique to the individual – and that is how it must be seen.  It also should not be seen necessarily as an impediment on a rich and fulfilled life.  Many will be in work, and many will be unable to, but assuming the latter on no basis other than physical appearance is a nonsense.  One of the things that shook me in the best way when I was asked the Papay version of the question, was how aspirational it is as a question – there’s a real equality in being asked a question with so little baggage attached to it.  I often find myself feeling slightly subhuman in my interactions with too many people due to how they see my disability, but in being asked the question with any sense of condescension is something I shall treasure.

I don’t know if it’s the fact that Papay is a tiny island of around 4 square miles, with a population of less than 100.  I don’t know if it’s due to the tight-knit community that those facts of geography generate.  I don’t know if it’s some weird undiscovered side-effect of living on top of so much neolithic history, or just the wonderfully clean and clear air up there.  I don’t know how or why Papay residents should ask the right version of the question – but whatever it is, I hope it can be bottled and spread more widely throughout the UK.  It would not be before time!

Thank you Papay, I hope to see you again some day.

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