As a new father, I began to put my lifestyle decision, to look for a job, in train. Blithely, I thought that, although I hadn’t got a conventional journalistic career path, people might be interested in me simply because I did not have a traditional trajectory towards the job.
At that time in the UK, job adverts had started to include phrases like ‘working towards equal opportunities’. I found such expressions strange: either employers gave people an equal chance, or they did not. I started by applying for local authority jobs which I felt I could do – press officers and the like – which included in the advert things like ‘disabled people are under-represented in our staff, and are encouraged to apply’. I got no answer.
Next, I applied for jobs for which I was less well qualified, but which interested me more. I got some way with applying to the Economist Intelligence Unit as an East European editor (The application process was quite informal. I was aided by my study of East European politics as a postgraduate at Glasgow University) but besides a smattering of German, I didn’t speak the languages.
Tribune was advertising for subeditors. I applied and was invited to a shortlisting session. A group of fairly scruffy reporters were waiting for the test. Their air of resigned expertise immediately made me feel out of my depth. We were taken to a room with three rows of tables, upon which sat three rows of typewriters. I was only used to word processors. I had never before used a typewriter. They might as well have asked me to use a quill to write. In fact these unwieldy great machines, green for some reason, squatting there looked toad-like and menacing. They were certainly intimidating. From observing others using such antiquated equipment, I reckoned however that I could make a stab at it. We were given a handful of press releases to turn into newspaper stories. I was very slow, but I don’t think I did too badly. I didn’t get the job of course.
Another interview was for the Xinhua News Agency, run by the Chinese government. I was of course unqualified for the job, training Chinese journalists in the ways of the British press. But once again my Glasgow studies must have helped me get an interview. The auditions were conducted at the headquarters of VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas). Their means of selection were to get the candidates together and eliminate them one by one through a series of tests – a bit like the Big Brother House. One exercise was to organize the others to sort different coloured ping pong balls into different baskets and transfer them in a certain way to somewhere else. Fun! Maybe someone at VSO was having a quietly ironic joke in the light of ‘ping pong diplomacy’, which was the way the press portrayed relations between China and the West at the time. Anyway the fun and games only delayed the ‘informal’ interview. I thought the diagnosis of M.S. might cause a problem, but no: the inevitable question was asked: “Mr. Lewis, how would you approach questions on reporting, for instance, China’s invasion of Tibet?”.
I told them, and the interview substantively ended there. It wasn’t long anyway before the Tien An Men Square debacle. Not even the most hard-boiled British hack would have taken the Xinhua line on that one. Or maybe they could have found someone.
My next tactic was to apply to disability organizations themselves. I got interviews! In each I had to confront my own prejudice. One was to edit a newsletter for LEPRA, the British Leprosy Relief Association. Of course the job would have suited me – and might have meant travel too. But I don’t think I managed to conceal my appallingly prejudiced distaste for the subject.
Finally, I applied to GLAD, the Greater London Association of Disabled People, which was looking for a disabled person to edit its newsletter, London Disability News (LDN).
As I approached the interview room, I heard someone talking with the unmistakably impaired speech of a disabled person. I was scared. “But of course”, I reasoned to myself, patronisingly forgetting my own wretched frame, “there will be the odd disabled person working here”.
The interview panel consisted of Frances Hasler, the Director of the organization, Michael Turner, the founder and existing editor of LDN whom I had heard talking, and who would become my manager and firm friend, and someone from the executive, the voluntary body that controlled the organization. Each interviewer was disabled. Michael explained to me later that he and the other disabled members of staff, responding to a national civil rights campaign within the disability movement, had just gone through a battle to transform GLAD from an organization for disabled people into an organization of disabled people – staffed by and run by them.
It seemed natural enough to me: recalling my 1960s political vocabulary – we weren’t in favour of the US running Vietnam for the Vietnamese were we? I don’t know whether it was because they assumed, as an editor of socialist magazines, that I would support civil rights, or because of my professional experience (well after I’d turned Interlink into a shareholding cooperative I did get badly paid for a few months), I got the job.
From the day I started, I made civil rights – the campaign for anti-discrimination legislation, and the right of disabled people to participate in society as equals – the main feature of LDN. It was well-placed to wage the campaign. The leading disability publication, Disability Now, was published by the charity for people with cerebral palsy, and was not edited by a disabled person. It did eventually change from its emphasis on fundraising and amazing feats (parachuting, mountain climbing etc) by disabled people to align itself more with the prevailing ‘rights’ culture of the disability movement, but LDN and some of the local publications such as the Manchester group’s, were the main printed form of protest.
Fortuitously, GLAD was based in Brixton quite near where I lived. I used to drive down Brixton Hill and park near the office. On the way down the hill, I often saw Brenda, our admirable Head of Equal Opportunities, speeding her wheelchair along the pavement towards work. Woe betides any pedestrian who impeded her progress. I suppose other footpath users had as much right as her to be there, but Brenda, a pugnacious fifty-year-old Lesbian woman with arthritis, made a mission statement of her life to redress the balance of years of discrimination.
The office was on the third floor of a building which had been given to disability groups by a generous bank.
I walked into the open plan office and immediately felt embarrassed by being so fit. It was staffed by people with a selection of impairments that I have come to recognize in my time in the disability movement. But I found it strange. I entered as a member of a culture which is routinely prejudiced against disabled people and routinely discriminates against them. I was a disabled person who was prejudiced against disabled people; but I had already warmed to Michael, who took me round to meet the rest of the staff.
Lunchtime. I was asked if I wanted to join the sign language course, which happened every other lunchtime. I declined, but I regretted that later because it was taken by a capable-looking deaf Caribbean woman, whom I would have liked to get to know.
That afternoon, I found my way around the equipment that GLAD had got for me. I was relieved to find that I recognized the word- processor and publishing program that I would use. To this self — trained reporter in this strange environment, it was the employment equivalent of a warm blanket. I also got to know the staff in my section as well as Michael. There was Liz, the Information Officer and Vilma, the Admin. Assistant. Liz happened not to be disabled, but she knew the ropes. Vilma was a Caribbean woman who had endless problems with her social life, particularly with her accommodation. Michael tirelessly listened to her catalogue of calamities and returned her to work. I learned a lot about management from him.
One manager, who was blind and had funky technology on his desktop that printed Braille, used to come up to my desk and talk, or sometimes he would just stand there and say nothing at all. He could never see the funny side of things. It must be difficult not to see people’s body language. He did smile sometimes. You just had to laugh along with him.
In this manager’s Equal Opportunities section was a man called Des. In contrast to his line manager, he made his presence felt a lot, with great roars of laughter. I found this difficult, because Des worked just behind my back. He was the Transport Officer, but found it very difficult to communicate. With much flailing of arms, he could hit a keyboard. Speech was even harder for him, so he would yell. Suddenly, as I was trying to fit a three-page article into four lines, there would be an explosion behind me.
“Why? Why can’t you make stashun access–ble?”
Not without difficulty, I got used to these interpolations.
In particular, Des would shout at his assistant, whose job it was to try to understand what he wanted. He got through loads of them by rudely barking at them. Life was very difficult for Des, and no less hard for his assistants. (He might have got one of them to help him wash, though.)
Des propelled himself around his office space pushing his wheelchair backwards with his toes. Other characters in the office were just as zany, and often just as distracting. Sometimes there would be a crash and clatter of limbs as a young woman fell to the ground, picked herself up and happily carried on careering through the office. She had taught herself to walk using the inductive method pioneered in Hungary. Perhaps a wheelchair might have been more effective, but clearly she was proud of her achievement. Besides, physios are always saying how important weight-bearing exercise is.
It was a happy office. At lunchtime, Liz got together with two of the Admin Assistants, and used to joke about the latest management silliness. You could get a sandwich for lunch at a nice little French patisserie a couple of hundred yards along Brixton Road. I used to walk there! The exclamation mark records that sixteen years ago, despite being diagnosed with MS, I could walk some distance without any trouble. The other members of staff were impressed!
One lunchtime we went on a civil rights rally. Jackie, a very attractive and fairly militant young manager, gave me a lift. We chatted as she drove. She said, “Do you consider yourself to be a disabled person?” This could have been an insulting question, given GLAD’s employment policy. Also, I imagine there had been some talk about me not being visibly disabled. But I thought I knew where the question was leading. I had talked to Michael about the social, rather than medical definition of disability: you are disabled by society discriminating against you. As a socialist, this seems exactly the accurate way to see it. I thought for a bit, then said,
“Yes. Nobody, besides a disability group, would give me a job once they saw I had MS. They disabled me didn’t they?”
I think I passed the test.
Once a week, the trainees used to prepare lunch in the building’s Canteen. Out of a sense of loyalty, and because I liked their apple crumble desert, I used to go. Strangely enough, it was here that I had one of my first experiences of prejudice. By this time, I was walking quite unsteadily. I was carrying a tray back to the counter when one of the trainees remarked, “He shouldn’t have had too much to drink this morning!” I was not visibly disabled, and he did have learning difficulties, but the staff told him off anyway. It was soon after this that I began using a stick.
Before that, despite not needing a stick and of course still imagining that I was as strong as the rugby player I once was, I began to feel at sixes and sevens – and a little bit off-balance – with the pushy London travellers and shoppers. Rival pedestrians were forever nudging past me on Underground platforms or Tube trains. But the stick served as a badge; people gave me an inch or two more room, and sometimes even gave up a seat for me. It was mostly middle-aged women who did that.
Feedback from LDN readers was very rare. Sometimes I wondered if anyone read it, but once I spotted a bus passenger apparently immersed in it. At last! Gratification! She was wearing a yellow scarf with blue spots. I was tempted to give her a kiss.
My interview page provided a break from the latest horror story about the appalling treatment of disabled people in the capital. The stories of my fellow disabled activists are truly inspirational. Goia, a life drawing artist whose blindness to all but lightness and shade gave her the opening to study the way light fell on her subjects; Alan Holdsworth, one of the many actors and performers in the movement, whose protest songs could not contain his anger: he founded a direct action movement which led him to chain himself to the bumpers of inaccessible buses or to Downing Street railings.
One interview took me to the Aylesbury Estate, home of the Southwark Disablement Association (SDA). Row upon row of dispiriting concrete ‘maisonettes’ brought home the unity of, on the one hand my post-sixties leftism, which led me to brave the monstrous Hyde Park flats in Sheffield, and compelled me across the threshold of some stinking repulsive homes into the bargain, and on the other hand, my current situation as a disabled person. The leader of the SDA cheerfully took it for granted that the members of the Association were going to be living in poverty, scrapping for the benefits which would allow them to keep as clean and to be as well entertained and well fed as the other residents of that mean, benighted estate.