On the 23rd and 24th of July I joined several hundred other researchers from a range of backgrounds by the harbourside in Bristol, for The British Autoethnography Conference 2018. The nautical backdrop and climate were spectacular. Autoethnography can be literally described as the study of self and culture through writing, (Adams et al 2015). It is an attempt to document through writing, the interchangeable process of self and culture, culture and self. It is also the foundational methodology of my thesis. I was in Bristol to learn more about my chosen methodology and to give a talk derived from my thesis chapters on the subject of the lived experience of impairment under austerity. I will remember this conference for its counter culture interpretation of the term academia, its informal dress code, socks, sandals, hats and shorts were a go go, and the supportive atmosphere fostered by all in attendance. I learned that autoethnographers refer to the giving of a paper or a talk as a performance. I think that part of the reasoning for this is that it provides the psychological distance needed to talk about subjects which are not commonly publicly discussed in politically and socially progressive ways. Some speakers talked about personal experiences of rape, others of surviving the mental health system, and experience of the welfare state in Europe, the last sounding eerily similar to some of my own experiences of state services. Some contributors chose to convey their experiences through music, others through dance, and, in one instance, the production and decoration of plates which contained pictorial etchings, which when viewed together formed a narrative of personal educational life experiences.
My own work was well received by those who came to view the session I was part of, but I must say that its content felt tame given what some of the contributors I have included here chose to share and contextualise with a balance of humanity, exquisite intellectual detail and thought. In advance of presenting my own research, a reasonable proportion of which is autobiographical, I was debating whether or not to swear in front of a group of people I did not know, not because I have any particular problem with swearing in public. I have done it before in some of my poetry to make what I consider to be an important philosophical and political point, but on this occasion, and in this context, I was concerned that my choice of language would overshadow the various points I made about the disproportionate impacts of austerity on myself and many other disabled people (Mendoza 2015; O’Hara 2015). As it turns out, I needn’t have worried, I was approximately the seventh person to swear, and perhaps more troublingly, no one I spoke to considered my use of the F word to be out of proportion as an expression of my own feelings in relation to my social and political position as a disabled person living in Britain in 2018. During my talk I shared extracts from my developing thesis, in which I place my own experience alongside that of other disabled people, some of whom have chosen to relay their experience in the form of written and published autobiography. In my ‘Wheelchair as Intrinsic to Self’ Chapter, (provisional title), I talk about my experience of being assessed for wheelchairs on the NHS. For context, I have needed a wheelchair for the majority of my life, it was that or a pram, but despite the obvious nature of my need, for large parts of my adult life, (over a decade), this has not been provided to me on the NHS. I have relied on second hand power chairs which didn’t fit my body and exacerbated my impairment. In 2015, at the urging of a close friend, and feeling very nervous because of my previous experience, I tried again, and was to my surprise, successful:
I’ve had a good morning, wheelchair services came out to try different postural supports to fit in my wheelchair, with the aim of improving how I sit. I’m being provided with a £500 cushion, a £500 back support and a new set of batteries for my chair. As this journal attests assessments of this kind don’t usually go this well, but the OT I am seeing is good, by which I mean, she listened and made helpful suggestions, and has not tried to stop me getting stuff I need … I’ve had some proper postural kit and support fitted in my wheelchair, this is the first time I will have sat right in well over 10 years, (it’s probably more like 20) (Journal Entry, 2015: 128; 136).
The fact I have managed to obtain a wheelchair I desperately needed is anomalous to my experience of austerity. In this chapter, I place my experience alongside that of John Callahan in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. John was an American cartoonist and a wheelchair user, paralysed due to a car accident. He remarks in his autobiography on the financial position of most quadriplegics and the cost of disability equipment:
Too bad most quads are broke. What a market for souped up wheelchairs, electric beds, $60,000 adapted bands, remote-controlled lifts … The very cushion my sensationalist behind sits on is a $300 item (1989: 76).
Time has not made Callahan’s words inaccurate, in my view his words are transferable to austerity Britain. In real terms, disability equipment is more expensive, and the financial position of many disabled people goes beyond the meaning of the word precarious, inequality continues to grow (EHRC 2017).
Adams, T.E., Holman Jones, S. and Ellis, C., (2015) Autoethnography: Understanding qualitative research. New York: OUP
Callahan, J. (1989). Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. London: Statics Books.
Equality and Human Rights Commission (2017) Being Disabled in Britain: a journey less equal. London: EHRC
Mendoza, K.A., (2015) Austerity: The demolition of the welfare state and the rise of the zombie economy. Oxford: New Internationalist.
O’Hara, M. (2015) Austerity bites: A journey to the sharp end of cuts in the UK. Bristol: Policy Press.