The impact of the social model: Kuli Kohli shares her disability journey

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Dave Lupton interviews disabled poet and writer Kuli Kohli in the continuing series of first-person accounts about the life-changing impact of the social model understanding of disability. Kohli explains how the social model has helped her to understand and challenge an oppressive society.

A caricature of Kuli can be seen smashing her way through a brick wall and soaring into the air holding her purple walking stick. She is wearing traditional Indian clothing with bangles on her arms and a headdress of jewels across her forehead. The bricks flying out of the wall have various things written on them. One brick reads ‘family’, another ‘prejudice’, whilst another reads ‘culture’ and yet another ‘sexuality’. Other bricks have printing on them and cover other issues of discrimination such as ‘Age’ and ‘Charity’. Kuli is shouting out as she soars above the brick wall: “Wobbly Woman – breaking through the walls of prejudice.”

It wasn’t until Kuli’s voice was heard as a disabled poet and writer that she began to feel that the social model understanding of disability began to make sense to her as an Asian disabled person.

Kuli first came across the social model understanding when she started working for Wolverhampton Council in the 1990s. One of her first jobs was working for the Equal Opportunities section of the Human Resources Department, working within the areas of Race, Gender and Disability. This also allowed her to understand the importance of inclusion in those areas of employment that employers continued to discriminate against.

Kuli went on to spend 19 years working as a Welfare Rights support worker within the Wolverhampton Council’s Welfare Rights Service. This involves working with disabled and vulnerable people to gain access to their benefit entitlements. Kuli told me:

“Money has a great deal of importance and impacts on how disabled people can achieve the stability needed to be able to live a satisfactory life. This has not only been a rewarding role for me, but it has also allowed me to give something back to society.”

However, in January 2021 Kuli became ill which forced her to end her employment with the local authority. She remarks:

“Retiring on grounds of ill health was a massive period of adjustment for me. I never thought I would leave my job in such a way. However, now I am a full-time writer/poet/mum/housewife I find that I have more time to enjoy doing the things that I love. I have also started a Punjabi Women’s Writing Group which gives other women in a similar situation a voice to share their untold stories.”

Looking back on her earlier life, Kuli tells of attending a special school where she was with other disabled children. She felt that they were being kept hidden away from society. This was compounded by her parents, who were first generation immigrants and just did not understand the issues around disability. Kuli remembers:

“I used to wonder why I didn’t see my other disabled friends on the streets and in the towns when I went shopping with my parents. I thought that everyone had the same rights of inclusion. How wrong I was. No one taught about equality at school or in the wider community, so when I hit the real world, it was a real shock to my system. I therefore didn’t have the confidence to socialise with others and didn’t have any real independence until I left school and started working.”

“I also began to understand that as an Asian woman with cerebral palsy (CP) I was categorised within the Asian community as someone that must have done something terrible in a previous life. Being born disabled was therefore my punishment for this. These types of assumptions are simply ridiculous, and I am working to raise awareness within the Asian communities to change these outdated and dangerous beliefs.”

Although introduced to the original social model understanding through her work with Wolverhampton Council, Kuli has found that in recent years, as the newer models of inclusion have become more noticeable in society, the social model concept has become much more relevant for her. She told me:

“These values and morals are becoming more important in the diversity and equality of society. It’s good to see that there are now many more disabled people’s organisations being set up to make them more visible globally.”

It was Colin Hambrook at Disability Arts Online (DAO) who first encouraged Kuli to tell her story of how life as an Asian disabled woman influenced her writing and poetry. She told him:

“I have always found it difficult to speak up for myself. When I discovered that others could see beyond my impairment, race and gender, then things started happening, for example, getting noticed through my writing. I got a lot of help and support with mentoring and guidance that lead me to gain confidence and much more respect. I began to receive opportunities to share my stories and poetry. This initially took a lot of patience and effort, but I never once felt like giving up.”

“I now have a network of disabled friends with whom I can share my opinions with through my writing. I also use social media and ask people to respond to my work and provide feedback. It has been a long process of giving a voice to what I see as a muted society.”

With regard to the social model understanding, Kuli explained:

“I think that the social model has given me the understanding and therefore the courage as a disabled person to live life as I wanted. It has also opened up many new possibilities for me and encouraged me to raise more awareness of disability within the Asian community. It has been hard going at times because family members and other members of the Asian community thought that it was quite acceptable to keep the story of disability swept under the carpet. It was not seen as an important issue.”

Kuli feels positive about the future for disabled people and that we are slowly beginning to obtain the respect that we deserve. However, she added:

“Family and community can still influence our lives. We need to raise much more awareness of disability in social terms rather than medical terms, only then will the next generation of disabled people find it easier. But I feel there will always be a fight to survive under this glass ceiling of prejudice and discrimination.”

“The stigma attached to physical, sensory and intellectual impairment will take years to overcome and for us to become valid members of society. Disabled people must be seen more in the media, sports, books (especially children’s books) advertisements, the film and music industries, mainstream schools and colleges.”

“We also need to push ourselves more in the public view so it’s not such a shock to the system to those non-disabled members of the community who do not expect to see us out and about! This way we can create a norm in society and not just be viewed with pity or sympathy or judged by our impairments but be seen as respected human beings. There’s still a long way to go, but I believe that the revolution has started!”

Kuli’s new full collection of poetry called A Wonder Woman was published by Offa’s Press in April 2021. In this she has written about the problems faced by disabled people and our life in general.

As we ended the interview, Kuli confided in me that the title of her collection is somewhat ironic as she feels that she’s not even close to being a Wonder Woman – “Maybe a Wobbly Woman!” she adds with a cheeky grin. For your copy of Kuli’s poetry pamphlet Patchwork and her new full poetry collection A Wonder Woman please contact Offa’s Press shop online. You can also find out more about Kuli on her website.