By Áine Kelly-Costello
In early December, disabled people from around the country, in conjunction with the Human Rights Commission, led celebrations of Disability Pride Week. This page from the Proud to Be Me campaign shares some of their stories and what “disability pride” means to them. The diversity of thought on the topic is hardly surprising, given that disability is
a facet of being human, which we can in turn interpret as anything from an individual impairment to a societal issue to an unhelpful Western invention to a positive form of identity, just to scratch the surface. We all agree, though, that “disability pride”, whatever it is, is underpinned by individual choices. The choices we each make about how we perceive and interact with people lie at the root of the sort of disability pride I myself most want to feel. That version of disability pride is collective.
I was born blind and I’ll happily tell you about my impairment. My regular use of a cane, speech software and Braille in public places makes this impairment very visible indeed and I am comfortable with that because I am using tools that make my life far more enriched, productive and convenient than it would otherwise be. However, such tools alone quickly become insufficient if, for example, construction workers allow construction sites to impede my usual course of travel, or if website developers create sites that don’t cooperate with screen-reading technology, or if lecturers set class readings in which the image of the second-hand photocopy containing text renders so badly that I am forced to try and make sense out of barely disguised gibberish.
These disabling factors tell a familiar story, and removing them requires conversing with people, in some form. These conversations either demonstrate that, for my interlocutor, people with impairments like me belong somewhere near the bottom of the priority stack, or, conversely, they provide a sort of lightbulb moment when the other person realises that the lack of access was not only inconveniencing but also devaluing—a failure to consider another person’s needs. My interactions span this spectrum. That spectrum shows the difference between the transport service worker who considers it sufficient to tell me that changes made to my route by construction are “temporary”, as if that information alone improves my navigation prospects and the rare bus driver, who, recognising the lack of audio bus stop announcements, decides to announce all of them themselves. It shows the difference between the bank employee who tells me that it’s my fault I’m having problems accessing their services and the librarian who has no direct ability to solve my EBook access issue but who commits themselves to the potentially bumpy ride of advocating alongside me. It shows the difference between the Maths teacher who never remembers to read out enough of the information on the screen for me to clearly follow the class, and the Art teacher who realises trying to understand line-drawing is likely to make me feel inadequate and sets me to work making a 3D fish out of wire instead.
It is important to remember that we ourselves can play a decisive role in governing our feelings of self-worth. However, whatever individual ability that I may have to believe in my own self worth against the odds does not come magically endowed with infinite levels of patience, energy and time, to boot. So that wire fish hangs on my living-room wall to this day, and reminds me of the difference it makes when other individuals choose to act in a way that shows me that my needs, and by extension I myself, are valued by other people. These individuals recognise the inadequacies of inaccessible systems, even if they have no direct power to fix them. But further, instead of sitting back and leaving the advocacy to me, they embrace the role they can play in making me feel valued in spite of those systems and practices. They allow me to tell them that it can be frustrating, upsetting and exhausting being blind within a world where a lot of people still overlook the fact that choosing to brush off a problem I bring them means choosing to brush me off along with it. They willingly open themselves up to criticism by choosing to help me thrive. The way they act when confronted with situations that disable me shows that they prioritise the dignity and mana of people above all else.
Surrounded by these people, I become the best and truest version of myself. I speak out to say that in certain interactions, disability presents unnecessary relational struggles in which my requests fall victim to a war against the status quo, productivity and efficiency. But I also speak out to recognise an alternative, in which disability becomes a site of shared understanding on which together, we nourish the seeds of a world that prioritises valuing people. I speak of this alternative proudly because, having experienced it, I know how healthy and liberating it feels. As individuals, we determine the role disability plays in our interactions, so let’s make it a source of collective pride.