Saturday, 12 November 2016

Guest post: Why These Fascists Are Not Like Those Fascists

A note from AxesnYarn: The following post is a guest post by a friend of mine. Inspired and rallied by their writing on their personal page I offered them a Guest Post spot. All that follow are their words. As always please comment and treat with respect. 

Content Note for discussion about fascism, islamophobia, Nazis, the American Election and related topics, but actually in my opinion this is a hopeful post. 

I want to talk about Fascism, and why These Fascists Are Not Like Those Fascists.

I first wrote this in my own bubble. Pen asked if I would be interested in making it more widely available through their blog. So, before I begin, I want to introduce myself a little bit to people who don’t know anything about me. I am writing from a relative position of privilege, specifically in terms of wealth, class and education, as well as conditional White privilege. I am also Jewish, queer and mostly invisibly disabled. Because of my family background and personal circumstances I have been spending a lot of this last year thinking about parallels between our current political situation and Hitler’s rise to power.

So I am one of the first one to find the swastikas and literal fascism of the past few months horrendous. But… actually, this is NOT how Nazi Germany Happened. It's important to understand that for all the parallels you can draw and how terrifying that is, this is terrifying for all its own reasons.

The German National Socialists were a fringe minority party who gained power slowly through the build up of several elections from 1919. They had an active, uniformed paramilitary right from 1919, initially formed from mostly WW1 veterans.

Germany was in an internationally marginalised position in the global community.

Fascist views in Germany never split populations close to 50/50 in the way that both Trump and Brexit have. This is key, because it means that solutions such as using constitutional process like the electoral college to refuse to elect Trump in America or Parliamentary votes against Brexit in the UK don't actually make the problem of rising fascism go away. Slightly under 50% of the population will feel increasingly (if potentially falsely) disenfranchised if that sort of action is taken. That is likely to increase polarisation and potentially violence.

The difference between a mob and a paramilitary is that at least someone is steering the fucking paramilitary.

Also, importantly: this has not been caused by complacency and failure to see what's been happening. Approximately 50% of voters have noticed, woah, this seems to be a slide into fascism. Populations are not complacent, they are polarised.

Importantly, and I've said this in a couple of other places, tools that were developed for fighting fascism in the 40s or the 80s are not necessarily going to be relevant today. We live in a world of 24 hour news coverage and social media; the issue is often over-saturation and compassion-blindness / compassion-fatigue, not invisibility of the issues to hand. Especially inside our bubbles. It is incredibly easy to look at the past and say, people should have spoken up more, then. And to try to fix that problem with our actions today. We can’t fix that problem, and this problem is different.

In a world where outrage is cheap and painful and truth easily dismissable we need to get really damn good at Snopesing before we share. Especially those of us in a position of educational privilege. We have the advantage of holding a position which has integrity, let’s make use of it.

I am trying to think before posting why am I posting this? What action, answer, change or response do I expect to come out of this post? If I am shocked, upset, outraged and my instinct is to share that feeling (and it is my instinct, fuck me I've resisted sharing images of swastikas and stories of hijabi women being assaulted alllll fucking morning) then I need to acknowledge that what I am doing is increasing the amount of shock, outrage, upset and pain in my community. Which is sometimes necessary, but a good question I am trying to use is, to what end?.

We do not know what the tools to fight fascism that looks like this look like yet. That's ok. In the 80s, my parents knew that the tools that their parents had used were also out of date.

Anger is good. Love is good. Action is good. Reflection is good. Communication is good. Silence is good. There is no right way to hold up my ideals, and that is fundamental to the nature of my ideals.

We haven't fucked up and we haven't failed. I wrote it in fiction – some of you might recognise these words from a different context - but these times come round and these times come round again. We've done it as tragedy. We've even done it as farce. This is familiar, yes, shockingly uncomfortably, boringly familiar.

But it's also absolutely brand terrifying new. Don't forget that either.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Us and Them and Me

NB: This is quite a personal and emotional blog post. It is written in one go to express some very real experiences. It may not be scholarly, objective or properly cited but that makes it no less true or valid.

Talk about the US election and indeed politics in the UK has brought up the concept of "elitism" and perceptions of people considered "educated". This is a big thing that needs to be considered carefully.

I want though, to talk about these concepts in an area which is more personal to me and also that highlights the duality of stereotypes that can occur.
As most of you know I had my PIP assessment on Tuesday - a benefit I need as I have a chronic illness and am unable to work and can be considered disabled due to my limitations.
A phrase that came up during the interview was "I can see you are well educated and intelligent ..." which in this scenario was deemed to be a good thing.

Being seen as intelligent, articulate and educated is a social privilege in this country. It means I get taken more seriously and that people are more willing to listen to me. It means that PIP assessors are willing to explain things and talk over issues in depth. It means that my cognitive disabilities are considered with empathy and in comparison to what I used to be capable of: I am not seen as merely stupid but that there is a marked difference between what I am clearly capable of and the stuttered half sentences I produce in person these days.

It means that I am also viewed as probably honest, as not "lazy", as more likely to genuinely be ill and disabled and in need of help. It means I can articulate my concerns and navigate the buracracy (though I can still never spell it) on their terms. Consequently I am more likely to be believed and treated fairly. That is a privilege I am lucky to have.

Yet at the same time I am seen as not really poor (thanks to my partner we are not) or in need. No matter how hard my living situation, how desperately I need a government who cares about me and who will provide. No matter that I have had times when I have had to choose between food and heating. No matter that I am treated like a waste of space, a liar, a cheat, a fraud, a burden by large parts of the country I am still, because I can type it out with some eloquence and because I went to university, one of the elite. I am not one of them. I am not one of the people. I couldn't possibly understand (and sometimes I don't) what people go through, and more damning, it's perceived that I couldn't possibly care. 

Classicism in the UK, as developed in the 19thC, matured through the mid 20thC and violently clashed in the 1980s doesn't exist anymore. Now we have elitism. We have educationism. We still live in a world that expects an attitude of "well we're not like /them/" regardless of money and income. We live in a world where we can expect preferential treatment from one group of people whilst being scorned by another and still not afforded any institutional compassion because of artificial descriptors that separate Us from Them. I will be treated nicely because of my education which makes me a part of the Us but, ultimately, I will be cast aside by the government because people like Us don't need benefits. People like Us don't need assistance. People like Them are lazy and undeserving. Only people like Them would dare ask for social security. If you have the nerve to ask for a little more then you must be one of Them.

But we'll at least tell you politely.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

There's No One Way

I see an awful lot of blog posts and Facebook and Tumblr comments that say something along the lines of "Vegans are stupid because they do X" or "if vegans really cared about X then they'd Y". 
It's frustrating and insulting.
For starters it makes assumptions that all people who are vegan think as a hive mind. Secondly, it assumes that veganism is completely black and white, that once a person has decided to be vegan a switch is flipped in their brain that has toggled all decisions to a single "vegan" answer and that there is absolutely no variation or wiggle room at all. 

OK some vegans act like that I won't lie. But the truth is most vegans wish it were as simple as flipping a switch. The reality is never black and white, and vegans are making a huge number of considered choices in many aspects of their life. 
That's what this post is all about. It's for other vegans as well as non vegans to break down the reasons people may be vegan and how that is going to affect the decisions they make. Hopefully by the end of it you will agree that statements that argue about "vegan choices" don't make a lot of sense and can be confusing and frustrating for people to encounter.

So we need to consider two different things: 
  • The reason why somebody may be vegan
  • The circumstances and environment they live in
The first group may be obvious - the reasons people have for going vegan will influence how they approach being vegan. The second group, their circumstances, is less obvious so that's where I am going to start.

Our circumstances are always going to have a huge impact on how we do anything at all. Consider the country you live in and what is considered normal or not there. that will influence you. Consider what goods are easily available and how the economy and retail work for the majority of people. That will influence you. Consider your upbringing, your health, your time allowances, your financial security and so on. All of these things will impact on how you live your life and will alter some of the decisions you make being a vegan.
Can you afford to buy certain products? Do you have the time to cook from scratch? Do you live in a country whose infrastructure relies heavily on certain processes? 
All these things often mean that a person can not act in absolutes and will often have to make compromises. Ideally they would never use anything that contains an animal product but can they really ascertain if the glue used in the upholstery of the buses they rely on is animal free? What about in the books they read and so on. That's an extreme but it is an example of how absolutely can be hard to attain for most people living in a western society. A vegan has to make compromises and allowances somewhere.

Generally they are doing the best they can to meet their personal values within the confines and restrictions of their circumstances. 

The first point is something more of you may be familiar with, and that is that there are numerous reasons a person may decide to be vegan. Some of them are intimately related to circumstances and some exist in spite of. So let's look them in more detail.

The Healthy Lifestyle Vegan

These vegans are primarily focused on living what they define as a “healthy life” and believe that a diet free of animal products is a part of that. Outside of specific medical concerns (which I'll cover later) a Healthy Lifestyle Vegan is concerned with the possible health benefits of a vegan diet. For this reason they usually lean heavily toward cooking everything from scratch, using raw ingredients and having a very nutritionally balanced diet. You may find Healthy Lifestyle Vegans also explore and adopt concepts like raw diets, clean eating, paleo diets, non-celiac gluten free and other novel food concepts. They may also be keen on other things perceived to be more "natural" such as not using "chemical"* cleaning products, using essential oils or herbal remedies and even in some cases homeopathy and anti-vaxx.
There is nothing inherently wrong with believing that a vegan diet can be good for you and a properly balanced nutritionally sound vegan diet can be as good if not better than an omnivore diet. This is often down to the care taken in choosing ingredients and the attention paid to the nutritional balance, which of course can be a part of an omni diet. 
It is also worth keeping in mind that other health beliefs are not inherently vegan in themselves even if for the Healthy Lifestyle Vegan they are closely associated. 
A HVL may be happy using animal products in other places such as leathers, lactose found in body products, and even beeswax and honey, especially if they value any health benefits of honey.

The Medical Needs Vegan

Though these people are vegan for health reasons they aren't to be confused with HLVs. This group is people who came to a vegan diet out of necessity due to specific health concerns and issues. For some that may be allergies or intolerance to ingredients such as dairy and eggs. Where it is a dairy protein allergy the individual may also have reactions to meat as well. 
The severity and number of allergies and intolerances may mean that eating a vegan diet is essential to avoid sickness, allergic reaction or even anaphylaxis. For others it is more about convenience. It can be difficult to tell if the concentration of the allergen in any one item (for example butter in a baked good, or whey in pre-packaged potato crisps) is enough to trigger a reaction and so it is more convenient and safer for them to choose to avoid all instances of the offending item.
In some cases a person may already by vegetarian or have a low meat diet and the necessity of cutting out dairy and eggs, for example, may mean that eating vegan is again, simpler.
As well as allergens there are people with specific gastrointestinal conditions which mean that certain food items need to be avoided or a low meat or low dairy diet is needed. Often this may take the form of low residue food, low fat and low protein. Similarly their are low-inflammatory diets, and high energy, or symptom management diets recommended to people with chronic conditions such as rheumatism, fibromyalgia and ME. A vegan diet can be a good way of achieving this for some people, and even then there may be additional modifications they need to make such as avoiding onions.**
This becomes especially true if you need to buy a lot of pre-packaged food, i.e. you can't cook everything from scratch, or if you are eating out or relying on others to cook for you. Having to check every label or explain all the things that need to be avoided can be difficult and even upsetting. 
Unlike HLVs, vegans in this group have some very specific concerns and needs. However as with the first group they may not avoid animal products in other areas such as body care and home cleaning products. 

These two groups often get called 'dietary vegans' as their veganism is confined to their diets and may not extend to other areas of their life. Some may argue that this means they are not "true" vegans but as you'll see it's very difficult to define what a "true" vegan is and for most everyday needs these people are vegan.

* Don't worry I know that everything is chemicals. I also know that natural chemical does not necessarily mean safer or better than synthetic chemicals. Hence the quotation marks.
** I also recognise that the very opposite can be true. There are some people whose health conditions mean that they can not be vegan as they have difficulty digesting or are allergic or sensitive to a lot of common vegan ingredients. If somebody can not be vegan due to health reasons you should never give them a hard time about it. But then you shouldn't be giving people a hard time about what they eat or don't eat anyway.

The next three categories are possibly best described as "lifestyle vegans" those for whom their veganism extends past the kitchen and their food and in to other areas of their life.

The Animal Ethics Vegan

This is the vegan that most people are familiar with and think of when somebody says they are vegan. For the most part they share two common principals:
  • There is no need for humans to eat meat
  • The keeping of animals for the production of things for human benefit is wrong
The strength and specific interpretation of these principals may vary by individual but they are usually present to some extent. They do not consume any product that has come from an animal. Mostly. Because there are some who think products from animals that died naturally are ok, and there are some who don't. There are some who think products from wild hunted animals are ok and there are some who don't. There are some who agree with feral and wild animal culls and there are some who don't. 
Most agree that commercial farming is unethical or not good for animals. A majority agree that even small holdings or personal farming of animals is unethical and not good for animals.
Most but not all, extend this to insects. Generally this extends to all by-products such as leather and gelatin. Most, but not all, extend this to non-dietry products such as clothing, body care, cleaning products and other items.
Despite the lack of consensus (and why should there be, these are individuals making their own decisions) the focus is primarily on the rights of animals.

The Religiously Motivated Vegan

There are number of religions which espouse or encourage a vegetarian or vegan diet. There are also a number which have other dietary restrictions. Jainism mandates that its followers are vegetarian and some may extend this to being vegan. Mainstream Hinduism doesn't mandate vegetarianism but it is an integral part of their scripture and is thus common practice, again with some people interpreting it as veganism
Similarly Vegetarianism is encouraged in the texts of Sikhism though it is not a central part of the religion and people freely interpret this, some eating animal products and some turning to a vegan diet. 
In Buddhism there are a number of branches which encourage vegetarian or vegan diets, though it is not uniform across all practitioners.
Whilst other mainstream religions do not have vegetarianism as a central theme, in fact may have common practices and interpretations which encourage the eating of animal products, there are some people who interpret their scripture to advocate a vegan lifestyle or diet and so practice accordingly. 
Often these beliefs and writings are closely linked to the idea of animal ethics and ethics of killing animals or consuming flesh. However as they are deeply linked to a person's religion and beliefs and may be thought of first in terms of faith or spirituality with the ethics taking second place, the individuals may be considered vegan for religious reasons.
You may of course find somebody of a traditionally non-vegetarian/vegan religion who is vegan, but this may not be strictly tied to their religion.

The Ethical/Eco Vegan

This group of people have come to the conclusion that being vegan is a sensible and logical step in living an ecologically sound life. They may be very concerned with methods of food production, food miles, intensive farming practices, local and national economics, global warming and emissions, GMOs and so on. Often their primary concern is eating food and consuming products that meet there ethical concerns as well as possible and have found that a vegan diet is one of the easier ways to do this consistently. Part of their personal ethics may well include animal welfare but it is just one part of their own ethical guidelines. 
You may find that they are very concerned about which brands they consume as some companies or parent companies may not be sufficiently ethical for their comfort zone. Again, this can mean that eating vegan is often a simpler choice for them as it limits the number of decisions they have to make or cuts out an entire area of ethical concern.
These vegans are likely to extend their veganism from their diet in to the rest of their life but it might look inconsistent to the outsider as there are always other ethical concerns guiding their decisions. This means that they may have decided that they won't wear leather or things using animal glues but are ok with wool or silk. 

These are the five main groups of Vegans I can think of and you can see that that leads to a lot of variation as to what a vegan is. Even people within these groups may approach things differently. Further more it is likely that people will fall in to more than one category and may prioritise things differently. You may find that somebody is primarily an Animal Ethics Vegan but that they are also a Healthy Lifestyle Vegan and are pleased that their ethics allows them to have a "healthier" life. 
Or somebody who is vegan for religious reasons may also have strong ethical and ecological drives too which further enhances their religious choice, or even helps strengthen their faith.

Remember though that we need to consider a person's circumstances too. I'm going to use myself as a brief case study here to show how complex it can get when you have different motivations and different circumstances in play.
I went vegan two years ago. Previous to that I was vegetarian and lactose intolerant, and previous to that I was merely lactose intolerant. I started out giving up all dairy, literally all of it because I was very sensitive to it. Then for reasons of Animal Ethics I went vegetarian. At that time I had ME and was fairly poor living on a small fixed income. I also started to develop my ideas about ethical and ecological living. I realised that with my energy and health issues as well as budget it was actually becoming very difficult to be a vegetarian and maintain my code of ethics - being vegan would make it easier.

Personally I am OK with eating eggs but only if it is from a rescue hen who is kept by a person who does not keep chickens for profit, looks after them well in a little chicken heaven in a back garden and is essentially selling the eggs that their now happy chicken lays around their garden which would otherwise go to waste. But explaining that to people every time I go out to dinner or ask in a supermarket when somebody says "do you eat eggs" is unreasonable, especially when you are fatigued. Instead, I just decided I would not eat eggs. It was important for me to have constancy.
Same goes for honey. Are honey bees essential for pollination and general world flora and fauna health? Yes they are and I support that. Is most honey produced from ethically managed conscientious apiaries who look after the long term welfare of bee colonies and the bee population? No it's not. So will I eat honey? No. Yes the honey from the small co-operative in your local town might be great, and the honey from your Aunt Sue's back garden might be lovely. But that doesn't represent all the honey on supermarket shelves or used as a sweetener in confectionery and pre-made items. The likelihood is that that honey comes from poorly managed commercial operations and I simply can't check the source of it all so that means no honey at all to save being a hypocrite or getting horrendously confused. 
Some people may say it's therefore hypocritical of me to eat fruit or drink almond milk and so on because bees are used for pollination, often on a large commercial scale. This is true and is something that has to be thought about. It means I choose my products carefully.

This is were we come back to what the post started with:
There aren't absolutes and there is no need for things to be black and white.
We are limited by our circumstances.

In the world we live in it is virtually impossible to rid yourself of every last thing you find unethical or unjust. From cars to public transport to politics and entertainment. There are things, physical products going in to them that we can't control and that we may not agree with. But this is where we make reasoned choices as to what we think is reasonable, practical and harmonious with our beliefs and situation. 
As a vegan do I think commercial beekeeping is ok? No I don't.
Can I avoid honey and beeswax and will that have an impact on bee colonies? Yes and I need more data.
Am I aware that it is necessary for pollination of many plants I eat? Yes, but I live in the UK a lot of food is imported from the EU which has slightly different practices and laws to the US so the concerns are different (not absent just different) than you may think.
Can I reasonably cut out all products of bee pollination from my diet? No it would be dangerously unhealthy, but where possible I can support brands that support sustainable bee colonies. 

It's a series of choices and a balancing act between ideals and reality.
Accusing or berating a vegan for not adhering to a black and white ideal is to ignore that not only are there a huge number of reasons for somebody to be vegan but that we live in the real world. Being vegan does not overrule other considerations of having to navigate our own unique circumstances within our environment and culture.

Expecting that of people, of any people vegan or not, is ridiculous. 

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Brontë Museum Response!

Following my Open Letter to the Brontë Parsonage Museum, I have had a response from them. I received a long letter yesterday in full reply - no standard template here. I won't be copying out the whole letter here but I do want to share some of it's content's with you because it was an excellent reply and just the sort of response I would hope to receive from a company following complaint about their accessibility.

First of all, the responded, and in full without it being a pro-forma response. That in itself raises them up above some others.
After some preliminaries, the letter opens with an apology. A genuine and full apology, without excuse or couching.

"Please let me first express my sincere regret that your visit on 29th August 2019 was blighted by limitations to the access we offer for people with disabilities, and also by the rudeness of one of our members of staff."

This is such an important thing and I can't thank them enough for doing this. So often we see non-apologies, apologies which try and shift blame on to the person complaining or which come with excuses hanging on them. An actual plainly written apology means so much. It is a sign of respect. It is a sign that they have actually read or listened to the issue and care about the person making the complaint. When you are disabled, to be treated with respect and not brushed of or belittled is so important and sadly doesn't happen as often as we would like.

The letter then goes on to state that they are speaking formally with the member of staff I named and that they [the staff member] will be included in the next session of disability awareness training. This is followed for an apology for her manner towards me and my companions.

From my point of view this is reassuring. Again the apology shows respect for the situation and to me personally and the clear statement of how it was dealt with let me know that it is something which will be remedied at the source. It's also pleasing to note that there is regular staff wide disability awareness training - this is only a minor surprise as, as I noted in my original letter, other members of staff were helpful and there was a clear indication of awareness of accessibility throughout the museum.

The paragraph continues with a discussion of their concession policy, which was central to my conflict with the staff member:

"...your visit does highlight a possible shortcoming in this policy when it comes to welcoming people with disabilities ..."
"I am currently putting together a comprehensive Access Report on the Parsonage Museum and its services..."

Acknowledging that there could be an issue with current policy is great. It would have been easy for them to attempt to defend their policy as "good enough" or that it being correct excused the staff member's attitude. They did neither of these things and instead have shown an interest in reviewing and improving, as well as noting the specific action that they will take.

The letter continues with discussion of the other issues I raised such as the distance between ticket desk and entrance and lack of toilets. Here there is less in the way of specific action being noted but, considering we are now talking about structural changes, that's understandable. The letter does describe some of the decision making processes behind the current set up which could have begun to sound like an excuse of defensiveness. However, it was concluded by promises of review, looking at other options and ongoing work. Though no specific details could be given, it does state that there are plans going through for development of the site which will include accessibility changes and will improve the situation. The timeline sadly is 5-10 years but, considering this involves a number of trusts and heritage funds as well as councils and local government that is to be expected.

So why am I so pleased with this?

Well firstly good communication means so much. Good communication can sometimes be responding quickly, but it can also be taking the time to be able to respond in full with all the facts. A thorough letter that properly addresses the situation is better that a quick phone call or standardised courtesy reply.

Secondly it really does address and answer each of the issues raised. It shows a level of thought and care for the subject at hand. Accessibility is all to often not properly thought through and not given the attention it needs. For somebody at the Brontë Society to actually give the issues this attention is a good thing. It also lets me know that even if they weren't previously, there is now somebody there who will make sure accessibility is given the consideration it needs.

And finally it was honest. An honest reply is so valuable. None of us our perfect not visitors and blogger, not Societies and management groups. We make mistakes or do things in a way that is less that ideal. It can be difficult when we have misstepped to own up to it, either out of pride or embarrassment. But an apology isn't just about somebody taking blame, it also validates the concerns of victim. It means that things are being taken seriously, and whilst something may not matter to you, it certainly mattered to the person who complained.

Incidentally, I should apologise to the Brontë Parsonage Museum for the tone of my letter, I know on occasion I can get caught up in the moment and obviously this is a very personal topic for me. That doesn't excuse haughtiness though. Sorry about that.

I should point out that I was also offered a free guided tour with a friend which I will be taking them up on. It's a lovely gesture but really, it's the quality of the letter that is important.

Take note, this is both how you apologise and how you address accessibility issues.
But then, they are a literary society. You'd expect a good letter.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

All over the internet!

Hello there! Axes n Yarn is my general blog. I've had it for several years and it's the place for writing about everything from vegan food to LARP to politics and of course accessibility. It's all a bit informal here and a place for me to get my thoughts and ideas out as well as sharing my experience with you.

However I have two other websites which might be of interest to you, especially if you like my posts on accessibility or LARP.


The first site Access:LARP is specifically there, as the name suggests, to provide accessibility advice for LARP organisers and disabled LARPers.
There are several Accessibility in LARP Guides available for download (as first featured on this blog) as well as opportunities to ask questions and even book training or consultation.


Access:Check is there for event organisers and venue managers outside of the LARP world. Through Access:Check I provide consultations and guidance on accessibility for everything from interactive theatre to art galleries. I also offer training days for groups who need to learn more about accessibility in general or tailored to a specific part of your event for example writing or choosing venues.

And if you really want to you can follow me on instagram @spoonieskeleton (where I blog about daily life as a spoonie and other chronic illness stuff plus the occasional bit of knitting) and on Twitter @Skelakit (where I tweet about anything and everything including #outofcontextrpg)

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

The Language of the Paralympics

This post is really a PSA to be mindful of how you think and talk about the Paralympics and Paralympians. It is a reminder, primarily, that Paralympic athletes have lives outside of the games and that the games exist in a world with many other disabled people living normal lives.

Paralympic athletes are, without doubt, awesome people and awesome athletes. They have gone through selection, trained and competed at the highest level in their sports and categories. They have worked hard and are incredibly skilled.

They are also
1. Not representative of all disabled people
2. Not fakers
3. Not there for pity or condescension
4. Actually real people.

When talking about disabled athletes people often fall fowl of a few cliches that can be at best annoying and at worst actually create a culture which causes harm to disabled people including those athletes you are talking about. That's just the cliches and comments that are supposed to be positive.
So lets take a look at them.

If they can run/swim/race/compete there's no excuse

This is possibly one of the more harmful cliches that comes out. Occasionally it is said with malice, an accusation leveled at "fakers", disabled people who can't work due to disability, but often it is said in a way that is supposed to be inspiring and encouraging to a disabled person.
The truth of the matter is we could say this about anybody, able bodied or disabled. If they can be a premiership footballer, there is no excuse that you earn minimum wage. If they can run a 9 second 100 meters then there is no excuse for you to be driving to the shops. If they can swim 7 different races in the Olympics then there is no excuse for you to struggle at the gym.
The truth is that we are all different. It's as simple as that. Able bodied or disabled we are all different. We have different skills and interests. We have different abilities. We have different physiology. We have different opportunities.

However this accusation is more likely to get levelled at disabled people during the Paralympics than at anybody else. If they can do it why can't you. As well as the myriad of reasons that anybody has, from opportunity to desire, for not being a top flight athlete we also need to consider that people with disabilities are also dealing with the complexities of their health and body. The categories of the Paralympics are very clearly defined and it may simply be that any given person's disability does not neatly fit in to one of those categories. Further more, there are things that just aren't covered at all and are outside of those category's scope.
There are dozens of disabling symptoms including but not limited to chronic pain, chronic fatigue and chronic migraines that simply do not lend themselves to sports and would make it impossible to compete safely. This is especially so for people whose conditions are variable. A person who has cerebral palsy has cerebral palsy every day. A person who has chronic pain may find that today is a worse pain day than yesterday and can not simply take more pain killers to be able to compete.
The Paralympics is just as rigorous when it comes to drug testing and banned substances as the Olympics. Athletes can apply for medical exemptions, but even when granted there will be restrictions as to what dose a person can take. This can mean that some people simply wouldn't be able to compete.

That's me, a disabled person, horsriding AKA doing a sport. I am not an Olympian
Finally we have to consider false equivalency. Even if you are a top athlete and all you do is train and compete, there is some flexibility in your schedule. You can plan the number of training sessions, how long they last and when they are. You probably also have a guaranteed income of some sort or financial security. A training session is not the same as having to do a full time job. The stresses on the body are vastly different and for the vast majority of jobs, the employer has little control over where it is and what they do when they get there. Holding down a full or even part time job in a manner that is able to provide a living is physically very different from managing a training schedule and competing. That's without considering the amount of support somebody may have.
Consider a race. The athlete is driven to the track so they can conserve energy. They are provided with nutritionally balanced snacks and hydration. They have an assistant with them who can help explain things clearly, who can carry things for them. There is a rest and seating area as well as a warm up area that allows athletes to prepare in their own manner. They do the race. Maybe they win, afterwards they have help walking away, packing up their things. They are driven home. They are given time to rest and recover.
Athletes work very hard. That is without question, but how they work hard is very different from your average working life. They just don't compare. So we shouldn't compare.

"That person can race" does not equal "so any disabled person can work".

They are "superhuman"

This is a little more difficult to explain. Describing athletes as a superhuman isn't reserved for paralympic athletes, it's a term given to many top flight athletes, because after all they are doing and achieving things beyond most of our wildest dreams. However, when it is used for Paralympians the term can be "othering" or have other baggage attached. Many people with disabilities have experienced being treated as some how less than human or subhuman. Whilst superhuman is more flattering than subhuman, it still serves to describe paralympic athletes as something other than a normal human being. This effect is amplified when you refer to an entire group of people as "superhuman" rather than individuals. Advertisers and commentators may be intending that group to be "Olympic level athletes" which would be appropriate, but this group also shares another characteristic, that of being disabled. Even if it doesn't rub disable people's (both athletes and non-athletes) up the wrong way, it does subtly enforce the idea in the minds of the general public that disabled people are a group of "other" and that other is different to normal humans.
The second issue, the baggage, relates to language and attitudes that disabled people often have to face. This is the attitude that disabled people are somehow amazing simply for going about their every day lives. That to be disabled is so limiting and so unimaginable that to do anything at all is some how a superhuman feat. As previously, of course what Paralympic level athletes do is amazing and really is something to applaud, just like we are amazed by the feats of any world class athlete. The issue comes that many disabled people are so used to hearing words like superhuman, amazing, awesome in a patronising voice relating to merely living their lives that to hear it at all directed at a group of disabled people is to make us bristle. We can't be sure that every time it is being used it is because they are amazing athletes or because the speaker or writer is astounded that disabled people can do anything at all.

"They're so inspiring"

They're so inspiring! She's an inspiration to us all! It's so uplifting to see this!
These phrases, and the issue with them, closely follow on from the previous paragraph. Watching somebody do something brilliant really can be inspiring and we really can feel an empathetic rush of joy when somebody has achieved something they have been striving toward. That's fine, it's normal it's not a problem. the problem comes when this language is so often used toward disabled people and so often in tones that sound like the person is speaking to a small child or a dog. There is a sense, once again, that anything a disabled person does is a shock and a pleasant surprise to some people. Additionally the language often presumes that the disabled person has done these wonderful things for the edification of the general public and not because the person just wanted to. If you find yourself thinking these things ask yourself, would you have been inspired if an able bodied person had done it? Why is it inspiring to you?

For example are you inspired by Michael Phelps winning his 28th Olympic medal? Because that's an amazing achievement and a display of truly awesome talent and training. If seeing that doesn't make you feel inspired but seeing a swimmer with muscular dystrophy get a personal best does then perhaps your inspiration is more routed in your understanding of the person's disability than in their athleticism. (I still think somebody getting a PB in a race is great to see though).
If your answer is that it's "just so good to see somebody overcoming adversity" and you don't believe that has anything to do with disability then stop and reconsider. That phrase has two main fallacies.
Firstly you are making a lot of assumptions about their disability: you don't know how much adversity that individual felt they actually had to battle through. For some it may not have felt like adversity at all. It's simply their life. It assumes that things must have been terrible for that person simply because of their disability and that they had to overcome it. That's simply not true. (And to go back to the first section, it also neglects to remember that people are competing against people in the same classification).
Secondly it means that you are drawing your inspiration and your good feeling from somebody else's perceived suffering. Just think on that. You don't find somebody inspiring or heart-warming unless they have first suffered so that they can overcome it in a way that you find pleasing.

Additionally it's also terribly patronising. It diminishes the effort and hard work that these athletes have put in to reaching the Paralympics and implies instead that they are only worth accolade because they have achieved something while disabled. I just want to pause a moment to talk about the many sports in the Paralympics and Olympics as well as, again, the huge array of classification systems. Because some able bodied people may say "Well yeah, but they're [the disabled athletes] are never going to be able to compete with normal athletes." and after I had been held back by a group of burly folk and prevented from assaulting the unsuspecting individual with my walking cane, I would explain that, actually there's often a good reason for that. So, many of the classifications take in to account an athletes physical limitation in terms of top speed achieved, or endurance. These are usually race type sports like swimming and running. In these cases, no, most Paralympians can't compete in the same races as their able bodied counterparts. Their top speeds just aren't making the qualification times that allows them to do so. However the Olympics and Paralympics aren't just about running and swimming, no not even about cycling. There are 22 different sports many of which consist of a number of different events in this years Paralympics, from para-triathlon to boccia, athletics to archery. Many of the classification and different events differ from their able bodied counterparts due to adaptations and accommodations, not because the athletes are less able (stay with me) in terms of athleticism. There are some sports where the main difference is changes to the rules around stance and equipment or specific differences in equipment that would not be allowed in the Olympic rules. These might be changes in saddle type in the Para-dressage changes, in how a sail is winched or what maximum dimension of boat is allowed in the sailing or, how many bounces of the ball are allowed in tennis Then of course there are the unique para-sports of boccia, wheelchair rugby, and seated volleyball.

Yes they are inspiring athletes but it's because of their athleticism and skill in their sports and not because they have managed to get into a world class, highly regarded renowned internation sports tournament "despite their disability."

But why is this important?

Well for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, though the athletes may not be able to hear you (though they can hear the commentators and see the billboards) they are still real people and things aren't offensive/patronising/inaccurate/hurtful just because the person can't hear you. If you wouldn't say it to their face, don't say it.
Secondly it's because, though disabled people aren't one homogeneous hive-mind, we are still a large group of people who do have a lot of shared experiences. Sadly a lot of those shared experiences are pretty negative and are to do with being mistreated at everything from a government to a personal everyday level. This sort of language, whether from you at home on your sofa or from a commentator on prime time TV just supports that. It dehumanises and others. It belittles and patronises. It is a constant trickle of treating disabled people like crap and like they are lesser than able bodied people. If you say these things unchallenged once, it gives you silent consent to say it again. And If you say it in private the first time maybe next time you'll say it directly to a disabled person. If it is said enough and by enough people it creates a society that tacitly agrees and condones that disbaled people are just something slightly less and something slightly inferior to abled bodied people. That's the sort of society that then thinks it's ok to treat disabled people badly because after all we're not like you.

That's a big reason.

Friday, 2 September 2016

An Open Letter to the Brontë Parsonage Museum

To Whom it May Concern,

On Monday the 29th of August I visited the Brontë Parsonage Museum with my partner and friends. We had been for a picnic at Brontë Falls so a visit to the museum was a nice way to round out the day. Unfortunately the visit was not without problem, largely related to accessibility.

First I should be clear that the Parsonage, museum and exhibits were enjoyable and interesting. The exhibits were beautiful and presented with real care and attention to detail that I appreciated. The setting is, of course, delightful. However, the accessibility issues spoiled my enjoyment and meant that I couldn't fully enjoy the museum.

The Parsonage being on top of a hill was always going to be a difficult approach for me as I have issues with chronic pain and fatigue. This is one of those things you just accept, there's nothing to be done with location. However, I was frustrated to find that the ticket desk was up another slope and in the opposite direction to the Museum entrance. This short extra distance may not seem much to an able bodied person but to somebody with mobility issues, be them from injury, illness or disability, it can be extremely difficult and limit their access to the museum. Simply moving the ticket desk to the entrance or creating an entrance near the ticket desk would make a huge difference.

A written version of this letter has been sent to the Brontë Society