Educate, don’t bitch

Short ranty blog post warning…..

I’m watching the Paralympic Opening Ceremony and following it on twitter, and also catching comments on facebook. It’s impressive, I’m delighted to see so many athletes and proud that London are hosting. I’m also morbidly curious, as an obsessive people watcher, watching people who are different to the norm is just that little bit more interesting. I’m comfortable with disability, always have been, I think I’ve always been naturally curious in people, my parent’s chose our Primary School because it had a PHU, Partial Hearing Unit – not that I think that’d be what it’s called nowadays, (I suspect it would be something like a ‘Resource base for hearing impaired pupils’ or maybe for ‘pupils with hearing impairments’). My parents wanted us to know from a young age that people came with all sort of abilities, strengths, interests. I would spend my breaks hanging out with the deaf kids (or Deaf kids) and learnt to sign before it was fashionable – unfortunately I lost that ability when I stopped practising, although I learnt Makaton at university.

Annnnnyway, what am I on about. Well I have always been as comfortable with people who are disabled as I have with those who aren’t. As a primary school kid when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up I’d answer a Special Education Teacher. I was quite inspired by Mrs Renton who ran the PHU. I dallied in wanting to be a Blue Peter Presenter for a while, then special ed teacher training was cut and I ended up going to university to study for an Education degree. I volunteered as a teenager, and again at university, spending time with people with disabilities in various ways. I was fascinated by the Psychology of Special Education as an undergrad and ended up doing a PhD looking at education for children with profound and multiple learning difficulties.

All of this is context, I am comfortable with disability, I have spent a lot of time around people who communicate differently to how I do, who move around differently to how I do, who physically are different to me, who think differently to me. Some of these people may self-recognise as being disabled, others would not. I also have a lot of people in my twitter stream who do, some who don’t.

So what’s the headline about, well I happen to think we have an opportunity right now, an opportunity to engage people with disability sport, with disabled people and with what they can achieve in life or sport. There is an appetite, an opportunity, an excitement from the general public. A chance to, dare I say it ‘normalise’ disability, I know, I know, but the point I’m trying to make is that many people who only ever glance out the corner of their eyes, and those who blatantly stare at someone with a disability strolling down the street, have the chance to see what disabled people can, and do, achieve. They have the opportunity to learn, to watch, to engage. I think we should all be welcoming this chance.

….and yet my twitter stream has lots of people complaining about language, about how people refer to disability, about people getting it wrong. There are concerns about being too patronising, or claiming people are superhuman when really they’re just getting on with their lives. I thought Georgie Bingham summarised it quite well in her blog post about reporting the Paralympics. There have also been a couple examples of athletes getting into trouble with other athletes for dissing their sport or their efforts.

I know language is important, I know it *is* worth considering how we communicate. I also know that many, many people are currently engaging with the Paralympics who don’t have every day contact with people who are disabled, or don’t know that they do. People are interested, they are ready and waiting to be inspired. Some of them are alo nervous, worried about getting it wrong, offending someone or misunderstanding them. Please, please can we focus positively and educate people but let’s not get all huffy about people who get it wrong, not the first time anyway. I think as a society we have a long way to go until people are comfortable with disability, there is lots that needs to improve, but let’s take people with us on that journey. Let’s educate not bitch. I think we’re far more likely to change perceptions and have a lasting legacy if we bring people with us and do so positively.

Rant over.

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7 thoughts on “Educate, don’t bitch

  1. I’ll be honest with you, George: when I hear Jon Snow – i.e. the main host of Channel 4’s coverage of the Paralympics – talk about people being “entombed by their illness”, I don’t share your optimism.

    FWIW, I agree with your substantive point about what might be “expected” of the “general public” (can’t think of a better way to put it); but I also think it’s reasonable to expect a better, more-informed approach by the media, given the responsibility associated with their position.

    But, hey, let’s hope.

    1. Cheers for the comment Rich, tbh I’m struggling w Jon S being the anchor for this full stop, saw really awkward show w him and Katie Price yday, cringey TV.

      Journalists are professionals, they should know better. I was being more optimistic about more everyday peeps, but then I could (as ever) be wrong/deluded/entombed in my ignorance 😉

      The rant was to start a conversation or debate so thanks for joining in; felt bit nervous putting it out there. Cheers twinny 🙂

  2. I read your post last night, George, and I uncharitably reacted from my gut. I felt that it was not really the place of a person who had not disclosed a disability to advise/lecture/ disabled people about how they might choose to react to other people using language that offended the or made them feel humiliated.
    After re-reading the blogpost today, I feel that the strength of my reaction was off the mark (I was in the middle of a Disabled Pride moment watching the Paralympics Opening Ceremony when I read it). However, I still feel the substantive content of that emotional reaction feels true to me.
    In the face of dramatic increases in the level of disability hate crime being reported, when “scrounger” rhetoric is used in any media discussion of disability, when the twin processes of ESA assessment by ATOS and the planned migration of DLA recipients to the new PIP (to be administered by ATOS), I don’t feel it is appropriate for people who don’t disclose disability to dictate to people who do, how they should react to language they find offensive.
    As I rather clumsily tried to say last night, it is akin to claiming “some of my best friends are black and I think they make too much fuss about being racially profiled by the Met”. If you said that, people would rightly call you out and question the basis for your assumption, ask what evidence was behind it, and query if unconscious racism was playing a part in your choice of conversation.
    I’ve huge respect for you, and for the fantastic insights I’ve often found in your blog. I wonder if your personal “comfort” in being around disabled people qualifies you to state that disabled people should “educate, not bitch.”

    1. Thanks for the comment Claire. My intention wasn’t to advise or lecture anyone, that’s not how I see my blog (and I guess I was up front about the fact I similarly was ranting in the heat of the moment)…it’s not how I see myself in life really. I was wanting to put something out there to offer an alternative perspective, and to some extent I was delighted that you engaged with it.

      That said, I did feel slightly uncomfortably attacked by it (as I’m guessing you did by the post in the first instance). I provided the context as a way of trying to explain that, despite my comfort, I still didn’t always get it right….and that I know that there are many other people who are anxious about getting it wrong. I found it interesting that Rich commented on Jon Snow because I’ve found his coverage quite awkward to watch…possibly because he’s anxious about getting it wrong and/or just not sure about how to communicate things in an inoffensive way.

      Maybe I’m unconsciously dis-abilist (if that is a term). I hope not. All I really know is that there are many people who are still not familiar with disability, who are anxious about saying the wrong thing or offending people – and my point was that as long as people jump all over them, they’re likely to not try at all, for fear of getting things wrong. I read this article at the weekend http://lifehacker.com/5938596/the-right-way-to-speak-to-yourself I think it influenced my thinking – positive messaging, encouraging ppl is just far likely to result in a better outcome in the long run. But maybe it’s not my place to offer my view….or maybe people should be more tolerant of it. I really don’t know.

      Thanks for commenting though, last night and today – you definitely made me think 🙂

  3. Thanks for the reply, George, and you’re right- I did feel provoked reading the article- but that’s my issue, you’re free to write what you choose.

    I’m sorry if my response upset you, in turn, because I actually think we probably agree on this issue in that we both acknowledge that the intention behind the words is more important than the words themselves. Personally, I don’t really mind which words people choose to use, if I can tell their intention is good. But I don’t necessarily choose to engage with people who don’t treat me with respect.

    I think it is true that being positive is a good way to promote positive behaviour change in others, but I disagree fundamentally that this is advice a member of an oppressing group can give to members of the oppressed group. Privilege, by its very nature, makes it hard to see an issue from the perspective of the “other”, and the oppressed group is never responsible for the education of the oppressor- they have enough on staying strong in the face of the barriers they face daily!

    None of my response to this blog is personal to you, George, and I wouldn’t even raise the conversation if I felt you were really “disablist” (yes, its a word), but just as I am capable of (thoughtlessly) saying a racist statement because of my privilege as a white woman, and not be “a racist”, it is possible that your assertion that disabled people should “educate, not bitch” is a disablist statement, whilst you are not a disablist person.

    Today I blogged an example of the daily onslaught I face as a disabled person to engage with the world. I think it illustrates the point I’m trying to make. http://otonwheels.wordpress.com/2012/08/30/quantifying-kindness-in-leeds/

    Privilege makes it hard to see such things, but I hope it prompts some reflection and thought in both of us, and in other people who might read the conversation.

    All the very best, George, and thanks for a thoughtful conversation.

  4. In response to Claire’s comment, I thought for someone who does not have a disability (at least none mentioned) that you did a fantastic job making your point about educating instead of bitching. For a lot of people, not using the right “words” or terminology is not on purpose, it is simply that they do not know better at the time. Also, what is correct today is not always correct tomorrow.

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