As part of his series exploring the Social Model understanding of disability and the affect it has had on the lives of disabled people, Dave Lupton talks to Mary Carr, a retired civil servant and now involved in arts and crafts.
Retired on health grounds, Mary reflects on her time working within the Civil Service and how the discovery of the Social Model changed her life. She recounts how her first brush with Disability was in 1992 when she joined the Inland Revenue. Now with the benefit of hindsight and an understanding of the Social Model, she views this period very differently.
“The Revenue was moving all its Head Office departments from London to Nottingham and building a new site to hold them. I joined the Personnel department and was working in one of the temporary rented offices on the fifteenth floor. After I’d been there a while, the Equalities team approached me to explain that the reason we were having so many fire practices was because I was not exiting the building fast enough. At that time, I had a real fear of falling which made me very slow coming down the stairs. I now know that it was undiagnosed dyspraxia causing this, which meant my caution was less irrational than it appeared.
They were concerned that the new building had open tread spiral stairs and if I did not manage to ‘do something’ I would have to work on the ground floor with all the other ‘flammable’ disabled people. There was talk of putting me in an evacuation chair but when they tipped it to start moving me, I screamed. Fortunately for everyone, I became slightly faster and the new building only had three floors.
The Equalities team used to consult with disabled employees on access issues and were keen to add me to this network. However, I did not feel comfortable with that, not seeing myself as a ‘proper’ disabled person. To my mind, I was not ‘suffering’ enough. I ‘just’ couldn’t walk properly downstairs, in slippery conditions or on slopes. Surely others were more worthy of consultation?
And then there was the problem of which category to put me in. Having had long-standing depression and anxiety the label of mental illness carried with it a stigma with which I was not happy. Their alternative suggestion of ‘learning difficulties’ did not feel appropriate either!
Sometime later my trade union, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) sent me to a meeting. The Inland Revenue were merging with Customs and Excise and their PCS disabled members group were far, far ahead of ours in understanding Disability. The meeting was their Disabled Members Advisory Committee and they were discussing their response to the draft Equality Act and how it fitted with the Social Model understanding of Disability. I had never heard of the Social Model or the term reasonable adjustment, but when I read about it afterwards, I was enthralled.
The social model cut through all my self-doubts about being disabled enough, deserving consideration, and obligations to change myself. It focused my mind clearly on what was wrong for me and getting in the way of my participating fully in life and on how to identify and remove those ‘barriers’.
One of these barriers was the inaccessible stairs in our new building. This major government department, who were saving millions on the relocation, believed it was reasonable to keep people unable to use the stairs in downstairs ghettoes away from their teams and the main meeting rooms. Or to subject us to manual evacuation chairs, despite difficulties arranging for enough volunteers to operate them, and potentially injuring evacuees by jarring.
Every time I revisit the social model it empowers me to expect inclusion as my right. It gives me a framework to demand change and to be clear where the responsibility lies. I do not have to classify my impairments and choose a main one for my label. We are simply non-disabled or disabled by the many barriers that exist in the workplace and society generally.
I do not have to compete with my comrades in suffering and deserving pity. I have an equal right to inclusion whatever barriers I face, big or small. The onus is not on me to overcome my impairments or adapt to less. The onus is on society to consult all its members and remove the barriers that prevent our full participation. And I will keep fighting until they do, secure in the Social Model understanding of Disability thanks to Sarah Bush and the other Customs PCS representatives who changed the way I thought about disability.
Now that I’m retired, I’m into Steampunk (look it up!) and attending craft workshops to learn new things and meet new people. Unfortunately, I find that many of the venues are inaccessible. They tend to be very small businesses that use cheap city centre venues which are listed buildings, which they say are not allowed to be adapted. I have learned not to assume anything and often ask the organisers to make their lack of access clearer in their adverts. The same goes for arts events. Given that so many crafters are disabled it is surprising and disappointing.
I once crawled up a very steep staircase on my hands and knees to attend a class at one of the city art galleries. I was unimpressed when their equality monitoring sheet for funding included race, gender and excellent LGBTQIA questions but nothing on disability. I may have used my red crayon to comment on that one!
So, I’m still fighting. Challenging every barrier that I encounter and putting my knowledge of the Social Model understanding to good use.
Description of cartoon for those using screen reading software
A caricature of Mary wearing her steam punk style clothing which consists of a purple top hat and long flowing coat is standing on a small platform with railings around it. The platform is suspended under a mechanical steam dirigible in the Steam Punk style. There are small fluffy clouds around her. Mary is saying: “Steam punk really sorted out my access needs!”