Disabled People's Liberation in RC

Disabled people's liberation has come a long way in the RC Communities in England in the last five years.

RC WORKSHOPS

Disabled people want to be able to attend RC workshops and think about the subjects of the workshops. If they don't get the accommodations they need, they are forced to spend time thinking about disability and they miss out on the work being done by everyone else. The RC Communities in England have worked hard to ensure that disabled people's needs are accommodated. (This is a huge contradiction for them, as disabled people are routinely excluded from events on the basis of their impairments.)

Early on in the planning of a workshop, an Access Co-ordinator assembles an Access Team. The team members contact the disabled people before the workshop and ask them to lay out their needs. Sometimes this involves counselling them until they can ask for what they want. (Disabled people are often reluctant to say what they need as they think this might exclude them from the workshop.) It is now generally expected that British Sign Language signers, professional personal assistants, assistive hearing devices, and any other necessary support will be available at RC workshops. The cost of these is included in the overall budget for the workshop and is paid for by everyone attending.

(People who had tended to 'moan' about their disabilities, and about non-disabled people's inability to accommodate them at workshops, quickly stopped moaning when they were thought about well and their real needs were met. All this took was a counsellor having enough slack to really listen to them and do what needed to be done, without clienting at them.)

Access Team members arrive at the workshop site before everybody else and set up the room according to the needs of the disabled people. They mark out the aisles with masking tape, leaving enough room for wheelchair users. They set up assistive listening devices and any other requested accommodations and check that they are working properly. They put out two mattresses for each person who needs to lie down (one for the disabled person and one for her or his ally, so that the disabled person doesn't become isolated). The disabled person's name is marked on the mattress, and people are expected not to use it unless the disabled person invites them to. Chairs near the front of the room are similarly marked for the use of hearing-impaired people or people for whom English is a second language. During the workshop, the Access Team ensures that wheelchair users are not isolated on the ends of rows but are asked where they want to sit and are encouraged to sit in the middle of groups. Then the team creates unimpeded access routes into and out of those groups. Throughout the workshop people are reminded not to block the aisles with anything.

An Allies to Disabled People Co-ordinator contacts all the disabled people before the workshop, tells them who will be present, and asks them each to choose an ally. Non-disabled people do not get to work as allies unless they are asked. Disabled people choose the people they know have some attention for them. Those chosen as allies cannot refuse unless they have another important and time-consuming job at the workshop.

Allies to disabled people are discouraged from being clients with disabled people on feelings related to disability. Just as black people are not expected to counsel white people on their racism, disabled people are not expected to counsel non-disabled people on their able-bodiedism. All allies to disabled people are required to meet in an allies-to-disabled-people's discharge group each day of the workshop.

Vicky Grosser has prepared an Access Pack for workshop organisers to use as a checklist for thinking about the inclusion of disabled people. Information about specific impairments and conditions is also available to everyone at the workshop.

INCLUSION ENRICHES ALLIES' LIVES

If all this sounds like a lot of 'work' for allies, maybe it is -- and maybe it's not! Access Teams get to work closely together and have fun. They become experts at doing the tasks required and pass on that expertise to each other. They get to think about inclusion from a practical as well as a theoretical perspective and to discharge on where they feel burdened or hopeless.

At a recent workshop, part of a building was inaccessible to wheelchair users. Rather than settle for the wheelchair users watching from a distance, A -- , a member of the Access Team, swung into action and built a temporary ramp. Two other carpenters just arriving at the workshop downed their bags and set-to(*) alongside him. All of them were admired and feted by the other Co-Counsellors, and since then A -- has been more visible in the RC Community and is stepping into more leadership.

Many people in the English RC Communities have started to learn British Sign Language. Initially they did this because of their contact with me (I am hearing impaired) and because they wanted to emulate the perceived beauty of the sign language interpreters they had seen. However, taking on this task has widened their lives and their beings in ways neither I nor they could not have foreseen.

We sometimes have sign language learners' topic tables at workshops at which these people get to discharge and connect with each other. They have begun to realise they are not doing this to please me or get closer to me, but because it enriches their own lives and lets them see more of the big picture. People who are not yet learning sign language see the fun and connections involved and want a piece of the action.(**) We often use sign language when singing, and almost everyone who comes regularly to workshops knows the signs for songs that are frequently sung. We all enjoy having another medium of expression.

COMPARING THE UNITED STATES AND ENGLAND

Recently, as the only non-USer at a United States RC workshop, I got to see U.S. patterns more clearly. The culture of 'independence' is strong. I suspect this makes it harder than in England for disabled (and non-disabled) people to notice disabled people's contributions to society.

It is shocking to me that disabled USers have to fund their own accommodations. In England, though I often feel like I don't get much help from the State for my impairment, I receive the following for free, without doing much to get them: a laptop computer (this is useful in meetings because I can lip-read and touch-type at the same time); a flashing doorbell, fire alarm, and telephone ringer; hearing aids (replaced whenever necessary); batteries for my hearing aids; and two assistive listening devices (one for home and one small portable one). I am also entitled to free public transport.

It is generally accepted in England that disabled people should not have to bear the costs of their impairments alone. I think this cultural acceptance makes it easier for the RC Community in England to acknowledge its responsibility for including disabled people.

I do not want to pretend that everything here is perfect. We still have a long way to go. However, disabled people now feel important and at the centre of our Community. They now expect to be accommodated and don't apologise for their needs. This frees them up to benefit from being in RC and frees up other people to benefit from having them.

Chris O'Mahony
London, England


(*) Set-to means began working
(**) A piece of the action means to share in what is taking place.

 


Last modified: 2017-05-06 23:35:41-07