Disabled People Choose First

Making Mini-sessions at Workshops Accessible to All

I shared the following with Marsha Saxton, the International Liberation Reference Person for People with Disabilities, and she suggested I send it to Present Time.

Over the last fifteen years, alongside others (some of whom have been working on this for decades), I’ve been experimenting with ways to make RC workshops more accessible to disabled people. One of the times disabled people are often excluded from full participation is when the workshop leader calls for a mini-session.

At these moments, especially in large workshops and when people are tackling restimulating topics, something irrational happens. The participants rush to find someone for a mini before the “people run out” [everyone is chosen] or because there is someone they especially want. People catch each other’s eyes [make eye contact with each other] across the room before the word mini has even been completed. If that doesn’t work, they wave, shout, or move rapidly across the room to get to each other.

Leaving aside the question of whether this is based on distress, it excludes many people who are not able to engage in it. For example, a chronically ill person or someone with a damaged back may be lying on a mattress at the front of the workshop, unseen by those near the back and unable to get up quickly if at all. A person who uses a wheelchair may not be able to stand up to see who’s available or be able to reach them because people are crowding the aisles. I myself am visually impaired and often can’t see where the people I’d like to have a mini with are sitting, and I certainly can’t catch anybody’s eye or notice if someone is trying to catch mine. Thus we disabled people are often left to counsel with each other at the front (it’s not that we don’t like counselling with each other, but we like choice and variety as much as anyone), or we miss having a mini altogether.

Few people rush to where we are sitting or lying. Perhaps that’s because they are not aware of where we are (often at the front, for access reasons) or it’s easier to find someone nearer to where they are sitting. But it’s also because of disability oppression: they unconsciously believe we are not as important as others or not as good counsellors, or they haven’t got as close to us as they have to non-disabled people.

At times I have left a room rather than face the exclusion and restimulation of this. And when I have found someone to have a mini-session with, I have often had to spend it discharging on the experience of finding them rather than on the topic of the workshop.

It’s worth clearly stating that excluding disabled people from any part of a workshop—whether it’s a mini-session, playtime, or meal table—is oppression and causes hurt in the present. Also, especially for those of us who have had impairments or illnesses since childhood, it restimulates the hundreds of other times we’ve been excluded or otherwise not thought well about. (Indeed, most people have old feelings of exclusion that would be restimulated by this situation.)

The first time I became aware of my difficulty finding mini-sessions, I tentatively approached the workshop access team to seek support only to be told that the problem was my distress and the team only dealt with practical issues! Things are better for me now, but only because I worked to get clear about my needs and insisted that they be thought about.

Over the next few years I did what I had been doing all my life: I used my good brain to work out how to make things more accessible for myself. I started “booking” mini-sessions in advance of classes, which worked to some extent but was not a perfect system. Workshops are so full of events that finding free time to make the bookings was often a problem, and I still had to find the people I wanted to book! Having an ally helped, but she or he often didn’t have the time either, or didn’t know the people I was looking for. Also, after I had made the booking, the people I had booked would often forget and I wouldn’t know where they were to remind them!

In workshops and classes I led, and with leaders who were open to experimenting, I tried other solutions. The fairest and easiest system I’ve found is one I call “disabled people choose first.” In this system no one chooses someone for a mini-session until the leader has asked the disabled people, individually, whom they would like to counsel with (and got the agreement of the person they have chosen). This has often been expanded to include young people, who are also often at the front of workshops and excluded from full participation by people’s oppressor distress.

In small classes and workshops I, and others, have sometimes used this choosing method for everyone, varying the groups that get to choose first. While this means that we disabled people often do not choose first, it is still inclusive, as we’re having the same experience as everyone else.

In larger workshops the “individual choice” method takes too long if applied to everybody, so it works best to have only disabled people (and often young people) choose first.

Everyone needs to know that the system doesn’t apply to all disabled people but only to those who need it. And people in other oppressed groups need to understand that the disabled people aren’t choosing first because their oppression is considered worse or more important but rather because they are in danger of being excluded.

At some workshops people from a particular oppressed group, such as People of the Global Majority, are given a “general space” to find their mini-sessions first. This is a different system and is used for a different reason. When it’s used, the disabled people in the oppressed group could, individually, choose their partners first. Then the other people in the group could find their partners. Then the disabled people not in the group could choose, individually. After that the space could be opened for everyone else.

Giving us disabled people a “general space” to choose does not meet our access needs, and giving us longer to “find someone” does not address the reasons for our exclusion. To make the situation accessible, we need to be asked individually whom we would like to counsel with.

“Disabled people choose first” is not an invitation to everyone who identifies as a disabled person. The access team should identify beforehand who actually needs the support and give that information to the workshop leader. During the workshop, a member of the access team should be near the front to remind the leader of anyone she or he forgets.

Before the workshop, someone on the access team needs to ask the leader if she or he agrees to using the system and carefully explain how it works and why it is needed. If the leader is not able or willing to use it, the disabled people affected need to know this before the workshop, so that they have time to work out another solution.

Organisers, access team members, and so on, should never seek a solution without involving the people concerned. To “think for” disabled people is present-day oppression. It also restimulates the many times non-disabled people have thought they know better than we do what is good for us. The truth is that nobody, however good their thinking is, knows better than we do what is best for us. We are the ones who live with our impairments and illnesses and have to think each day about how to access the world. We know what’s been tried and what has happened when it’s been tried. We are the experts on our own lives. This is not to say that we don’t get confused by past distresses. We are human, too! But however confused we seem, allies should resist the temptation to think “for” us. Instead they should let us discharge, and trust that our good thinking will come out.

If the leader agrees to use the “disabled people choose first” system, it is still important to remember that she or he is leading a workshop, has many other things to think about, and may need reminding. A member of the access team can sit near the front with a sign “disabled people choose first” and be prepared to speak up if the sign does not work or the leader forgets certain people.

Someone—the leader of the workshop, a member of the access team, or a disabled person—needs to explain the system to the workshop and why it is being used. It will work much better if everybody is behind it [supportive of it]. People need to know that they should wait patiently and pay attention to the disabled people (not covertly catch each other’s eyes) while the disabled people are choosing. If they can look encouraging and eager to be picked, so much the better. This will help the disabled people pick quickly instead of being restimulated into embarrassment and silence.

The disabled people can also help to make the process smooth and fast. They can still “book” a person for a mini-session before the class starts, and when their name is called they can say “done” or something similar. Or they can have two or three people in mind (in case one gets chosen by someone else). If they are unable to speak loudly, they can have an ally “amplify.”

Some workshop participants may fear that this system will “take up too much time”—a response that is part of the oppression of disabled people. But what better use of time than to ensure that everyone gets to participate on an equal footing? In fact, the system won’t take more than a few minutes, if it’s set up well beforehand and follows the guidelines I’ve suggested. And taking those minutes will make a big difference—perhaps not only to the people who need the access support. It could move the whole workshop from a place of urgency to one of relaxed confidence that everyone’s needs are being met and all are being thought about well.

Al Head

Tavistock, Devon, England

(Present Time 193, October 2018)

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00