A week of lows and high

Last week I went to the Disability Hub meeting. A police officer from the community neighbourhood team came to speak to us about a toolkit they are in the process of creating to help raise awareness of different diversity groups within the public for the force. The police representative seemed to be well informed and aware, however when I asked him if he had the documents he passed around during the meeting in electronic format, he wasn’t sure what to answer as he had not thought about it!

On the way to the disability hub, I thought I was having a pleasant exchange with the taxi driver and was able to not feel on edge, only for him to ask at the end of the journey ‘if you don’t mind, what happened to you?’ When I refused to answer him, saying ‘no actually I do mind’, he said ‘it’s OK, I’ll pray for you’!

Wait, it even gets better!

On another taxi journey, the driver turned to my PA and said, ‘what is wrong with her?’ When my PA brushed off the question, the driver started to talk to me in a very loud voice saying, ‘ARE YOU OK LOVE?’. I cannot comprehend how people can be so patronising and not realise how rude they are being.

Last Saturday we went to see a play called ‘Dancing Bear’, a semi-autobiographical account of LGBTQ+ community and the isolation and discrimination they face on daily basis and even within their fate community in churches in modern Britain. I could see lots of parallels with the disability community – similar oppressive structures. A BSL interpreter was creatively and cleverly embedded in the play, which was fantastic. However, the audio description did not live up to expectation, and most scenes, including the key moments were left undescribed, so I was not able to follow the play fully.

The Q and A following the play was interesting and some disability issues were discussed. We have sent a feedback email to the writer and have informed her of my concerns. I am hoping that they will take the VIP’s access needs on board more for their next iteration of the show.

The highlight of this week was to see my article in print in the current issue of Disability and Society. It is important for me to tell my story of the Armenian academic trip in which I gave lectures and workshops while only relying on my wonderfully supportive parents. I hope my point was clear that it should not be down to my aging parents to provide support in that specific context rather academic mobility should be the norm for disabled researchers as it is for non-disabled scholars, and the academic community should be inclusive and accessible to all.

Feeling responsible

We started the previous week’s Women for Peace session by playing a game, where in two teams we were trying to grab the pen first, by passing a message down the line.  Following the game, we discussed how easy it was to pass a message along, but we felt responsible when we had to retract a false message.  Since my hands sometimes jerk uncontrollably, I felt pressured and responsible for our group, luckily our group won! We then talked through two methods of holding difficult conversations with another person – the Dialogue Model, and I Statements.  

The Dialogue model is a useful way to address a comment that a person has made that we don’t feel comfortable with like a disablist comment/opinion. The model follows four stages of ignore, postpone, refer or dialogue in order to take us through a constructive dialogue about a topic.  The ‘I’ Statements, on the other hand, are based on a non-judgemental model, where the person simply expresses how a certain conflict has made her feel and invites the other person to have a constructive discussion.  I preferred the latter as it’s more about owning up to how one feels and taking responsibility for it instead of blaming the other.  Following this, we came up with some conflict scenarios from personal experience in small groups.  We then sat in two lines to do role plays with those topics, using our new dialogue models as tools to resolve the conflicts.  I chose to use the statement ‘You don’t look blind’ for my scenario, which is often expressed in a complimentary way, however this is not received in the same way, at least by me.  While the person role playing my scenario did not appear to realise the importance of ‘blind’ identity to my personhood, when acting out, I think the group understood the message.

In our penultimate Women for Peace session this week, we individually had to come up with four words that define peace, then as a group work together to narrow it down to only four in total.  This resulted in really interesting discussions about how we work together in an environment, which is in principle based on ‘equality’, and how we can apply the lessons learned to our everyday life.  As an ice breaker, we started this session with a game, where one person in the middle said a statement and those who identified with her should have stood up, looking for another chair to sit on.  This game clearly excluded me.  Since playing not fully inclusive games has been the norm almost every session, I was really upset that even after nine sessions things haven’t changed to become more inclusive.  I burst into tears and had to take time out.  I shared my concerns with one of the facilitators and followed it up with writing a feedback email.  While on one hand I feel it shouldn’t be down to me to educate people having felt marginalised already, on the other hand I feel responsible for making people more aware.  I am continuously surprised that most equality trainings are about race, ethnic background and religious beliefs with little attention given to disability.  I wish I wasn’t so accepting and that I was more vocal through the course; perhaps people would have then understood my views better and wouldn’t have accepted some of the non-inclusive practices that have been going on.  Being a minority even in a women’s only group, which is formed around promoting peace is not without its challenges.  I’ll be talking more about this with the facilitators at the next, and last, session.

Outside the course, I participated in a focus group with some other equality hub members about how to make Leeds city centre more accessible.  We had interesting ideas about the things we liked about Leeds and the things we didn’t like. From my perspective, I like open spaces such as Briggate and its pedestrian zone, and what I don’t like is the narrow pavements, especially when people leave their black, green and brown bins blocking the path. We also spoke of an ideal Leeds and what we would like to see.  Recommendations included more lighting and safe spaces, audio signs and information (including bus/train timetables) and wider pavements.  All in all it was a productive session for us, but much depends on how much is taken on board by the council when planning a more accessible Leeds.

We have had another lot of snow this weekend, which restricted my mobility once again.  This meant my plans to walk to the Carriageworks  Theatre to see a play had to be cancelled.  It was difficult enough to go to the relatively nearby Hyde Park Picture House to see ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’, a beautiful film depicting a woman’s trauma after losing her daughter, and her fight for justice despite being patronised and discriminated against by her own community.

For the second time, David and I went to the historical talks held in Left Bank Centre.  While the first one we went to was about the Leeds Zoo located on Cardigan Road around 1848, this one was about the Adelphi and Garden Gate pubs, located in Hunslet.  I find the talks really fascinating, shedding a wonderful light on some of the treasures in Leeds, both from Architectural and social historical perspectives.  I’m so looking forward to going to the next one.

It Remains To Be Seen…

I have had a super busy two weeks and have not had time to keep up with blogging. 

I attended a working group with various stakeholders representing the taxi licensing for Amber Taxis, the main taxi firm in Leeds, to discuss different issues concerning the passengers.  The discussion revolved around topics including taxi pick up points, cross-bordering (drivers from Bradford or Sheffield for example, working in Leeds) and training for the drivers.  The members were interested to hear from the passenger group.  There were only two equality hub representatives and we were both from the disability hub.  The questions asked were mainly about disability awareness training, we were reassured that the drivers are due to receive a new set of trainings, the content of which was going to be discussed in the next working group.  Sadly neither of us was able to attend this so it remains to be seen in the third meeting whether or not the programme proposed includes effective and detailed disability training.  What was clear though was the inaccessibility of the meeting paperwork; we were handed out a large hard copy folder with lots of printed files.  I mentioned that this format was not accessible for me and asked them to send me an electronic version of the files, sharing with them my contact details.  Almost three weeks on this email has not arrived yet, even after another request send to the chair.  I am not going to attend the third meeting if the paperwork is not sent to me electronically in advance of the meeting, because I feel I have been denied equal access to the paperwork and for that reason, I see little point in my participation in the meeting.  The first meeting itself was intimidating enough; there were about 20 people present including some councillors and council officers.  The meeting was dominated by the male members and women were generally not very vocal.  It was challenging to speak out but I tried to talk about the difficulties I have faced when using taxies as clearly as I could. I am going to start documenting all the difficulties I face in future blogs, so we’ll see if anything changes!

In the last two weeks, the Women for Peace course has been very interesting and informative.  We explored ‘them’ and ‘us’ thinking, and how this narrative can be used by extremist groups to divide people, even to trigger violence.  To examine this, we looked at the 22 Factors of Vulnerability, covering engagement such as feelings of grievance or injustice, a desire for status, being at a transitional time of life; intent such as over-identification and ‘them and us’ thinking; and capability, such as knowledge and access to networks and resources. These are some of the factors that can be used to assess whether someone might be on the path to terrorism (although this in itself is by no means evidence to criminalise anyone).  This lead us to the exploration of Gordon Allport’s Nature of Prejudice Model, starting with anti-locution (negative words and comments about a group), then avoidance, then active discrimination against them (not employing people from that group), before physical violence and then ultimately extermination.  This model brought home for me far right disablist groups, who spread bigotry against disabled people and promote disability hate crime or even extermination.  The ‘us’ and ‘them’ way of thinking is relevant to disabled people’s life, where we are marginalised, excluded and not fully accommodated even in well meaning causes.  Sadly the Women for Peace group does not seem to be interested in focusing on disabled people’s oppression, despite my attempts to bring up the topic wherever I can. 

We then discussed the linear route suggested by an Iranian sociologist Moghaddam – ‘Staircase to Terrorism’ – as the path someone might take to carrying out an act of terror.  The model highlights the implications of a single story narrative, and how a person can isolate themselves into becoming trapped in that mindset.  I personally felt Moghaddam’s model was too linear and somewhat simplistic, not necessarily allowing room for the influence and interaction of multiple variables in an individual’s life.

We have also been watching ‘My Former Life’ over the last two weeks, and heard about the childhood experiences of four former extremists, ranging from psychological abuse to being bullied, how they each ended up joining an extremist group and what their turning points from those groups were.  In small groups we then looked at each of the characters, and considered how life is for them now and how much they have recovered.  I felt the turning point for all four characters was the recognition of human connectivity and the sense of our unity as human beings through the revaluation of their values, whether it was because they were overcome by a major sense of guilt or it was because they were touched by other’s kindness, words and actions.

Outside of the Women for Peace course, I attended a First Aid at Work course at the Centre for Integrated Living.  Considering I have a team of six PAs, I felt it was important to know what to do should an emergency situation arise.  The course was extremely informative and I learned a lot but it was very intense.  In terms of accessibility, I was confronted with a number of challenges.  Lots of example scenarios were very visual with little audio description; even the course handout was not fully accessible.  The one to one attention that you would expect to be given to a disabled person attending a First Aid course to demonstrate the life support techniques was lacking.  Despite all these barriers, I spent a full weekend revising for the exam, only to arrive on the Monday morning and to be told by the trainer that the head of the region had decided to award me only an attendance certificate instead of certificate of achievement, and that I did not need to take the exam. 

While at first the internalised oppression kicked in and I said ‘I understand as I am not an ideal candidate for the first aid’, I immediately knew this was discriminatory, so I started the bargaining process. I challenged the trainer on taking at least the theory test, and then expressing my desire to take the practical one as well.  He referred the request to the assessor, who was due to arrive later in the day, and while he did that, I rang David, who is on annual leave this week. I was demotivated, but determined to take the exam and David was happy to scribe the exam paper for me and also be my body buddy for the practical exam.  I dictated my answers to David and once the assessor arrived I did the practical test.  To my delight, the assessor was unsure as to why I should not receive the full certificate; she thought I performed well in both exams.  I personally felt I could have done much better if I was not made to feel excluded from the examination process in the morning and thus discouraged.  Nevertheless, I am pleased for challenging the trainer and showing that I am capable of partaking in the exam, It remains to be seen if I receive the full certificate or not, but that’s not the point. I’m also going to raise this with CIL as part of the feedback.

If all that wasn’t enough, I also participated in a weekend long workshop on the Theatre of the Oppressed (TotO) organised by Reboot the Roots and Leeds Tidal.  This school of theatre-making, using a methodology underpinned by an ethos of empowerment, offers theatre as a tool for liberation to people in all stages of life in all parts of the world.  It is a means of using theatre as a way of better understanding ourselves and how we fit into the worlds around us, and most importantly, how we might consequently change those worlds.  It is a concrete embodiment of the arts as a real instrument for social and political change.  The Theatre of the Oppressed is the remarkable invention of Augusto Boal, the Brazilian theatre-maker, theorist and activist.

We started the weekend with some specific exercises like Clay-modelling.  We arranged ourselves in two lines of sculptures and statues facing each other.  In the first round the sculptors were asked to mould their statues to objects while in the second round the sculptors were invited to mould an emotion.  Then we were divided into small groups and given the task of representing a social issue in a statue form.  Next we were told the name of a specific location in our teams and asked to display the place by using our bodies or body parts without talking to each other.  Through creative techniques such as Image Theatre, Rainbow of Desires and Forum Theatre, we explored various oppressions.

Forum theatre is one tool of the Theatre of the Oppressed for enabling people to change their world.  The objective of forum theatre is to transform passive spectators into active spect-actors through the presentation of a piece of theatre where a protagonist experiences an oppression – a situation where they fail to achieve what they want, or are prevented from doing so by the antagonists.  We used the forum theatre for the most of the weekend.  On the Saturday I volunteered to lead a group of four to perform out a disability discrimination scene.

Firstly, we presented an anti-model: a short play where I as the protagonist tried and failed to break my oppression of being ignored and excluded, sitting on my own in a group with two chairs empty either side of me, and feeling lonely. The others were sitting together and talking patronisingly about the protagonist saying things like ‘poor thing, how does she manage’.  Next, the Joker (the TotO facilitator) explained that the model will be replayed, but this time whenever the audience sees a moment the antagonists can act differently, they can shout out ‘stop!’ and once the audience member shouts stop, they are invited onstage to replace one of the antagonists and improvise their solution to the problem.  The audience tried to replace different antagonists for a few rounds but none of their attempts to include the protagonist came across as natural.  In the last round, I was asked to adopt an alternative approach as the protagonist, which I did.  Instead of just sitting there, I made the proactive effort to be involved, such as saying hello and inviting the others in the group to come sit next to me.

While the outcome was desirable and created a more inclusive environment, I felt it should not be down to me alone to put in all of the effort of making people feel comfortable, as this is something that I do most of the time.  This in its way reinforces the oppression by not addressing the root of the problem and everyone agreed. Although the participants were clued-up and informed people, they all found the exercise helpful particularly as it was a direct reflection of a disabled person’s experiences, something that they were not so exposed to.  Even though in the end we did not find an ideal solution and we did not break the oppression, I felt empowered having shared my daily disabling experiences with a receptive audience, who were willing to learn and look for solutions.  I feel TotO has a great potential of raising awareness of social justice issues and involving the community; I would love to build on what I learned last weekend and do similar scenes reflecting the oppression of disabled people as a means of education.  I remain hopeful that some opportunities will be opened in this direction.    

It has been busy but steady in the healing centre for the last two Fridays and we have welcomed some old and new visitors to our new location, however throughout these busy days, I experienced a terrible migraine. This made me very sick but I was determined to stick it out and stay for all the events as it is important for me to participate in community activities, where I have chance to be ‘me’, meet new people and learn. I’m having a slight rest this week, readying myself for the work ahead, and I’m off up to the Left Bank Centre in Leeds this afternoon for some community bonding over cake and tea! Hopefully it’s vegan!

Shall we begin?

The first week of blogging was a busy one – just as well, as I am new to blogging and now have lots to write about!

Two basic dimensions of behavior (assertiveness and cooperativeness) lead to 1 of 5 models - competing, avoiding, accommodating, collaborating, compromising

The week started with the first session of the ‘Women for Peace’ course.  The day was a promising start to what seemed to be a very interesting course.  In a group of 14 enthusiastic and friendly women, we attempted to define five key aspects of our identity.  Then we tried to narrow these down to three core identities. Mine were ‘healer’, ‘disabled’ and ‘spiritual being’.  I let go of ‘activist’ and ‘researcher’ parts of my identity, reasoning that by keeping the ‘disabled’ identity, I can continue challenging, informing and learning about oppression without using the labels of ‘activist’ or ‘researcher’.  Following this, we thought about how these aspects of our identity relate to our beliefs and value-systems, and then how these specific values affect our everyday behaviour and attitudes.  I was surprised though that neither my Iranian nor Armenian identities came to mind when choosing the five identities, considering I am a proud Armenian Iranian.  Through a number of role play examples, we played out different conflict scenarios, to find out how we resolve various conflicts in a range of relationship contexts.  These were then linked with Thomas-Kilman’s conflict management styles diagram.  Role plays generally make me very uncomfortable but I felt comfortable enough to opt out from this activity.  The group was really supportive and I felt at ease with everyone.  In the end of the session, I had offers of lifts for next week, which was very reassuring and meant a lot to me.  Using a taxi would have presented problems in terms of walking to and from the taxi unassisted.  

On the Wednesday, I attended the Disability Hub meeting organised and run by Leeds City Council.  In the meeting a representative from the Royal British Legion gave a presentation about the scope of the charity and the wide range of support it offers to the service personnel, both past and present. Then the project manager of Stop Hate UK talked about an event to be held later on this year with the aim of bringing organisations and people working on hate crime in Leeds together for collaboration and learning.  I expressed interest in getting involved and shared my contact details.  After the presentations, members had chance to share their concerns.  Listening to different discrimination people face in their daily lives made me sad, no matter how much I push away my own frustration with people’s negative attitude towards me, disabled people’s oppression and struggle continue to affect us all.

On Thursday I participated in the Equality Hub with another Disability Hub representative.  We shared with the other members and council staff our discussions from the previous day and our hub activities.  We listened to the issues raised by other hub members.  I felt confident in this meeting to share with the Taxi Licensing representatives my personal difficulties I have experienced with taxi drivers, for example about intrusive questions they ask me like ‘Do you live on your own?’ or ‘What happened to you?’ referring to my impairments. He apologised on behalf of the company said that he would take my comments on board. We will see.

Friday was my first healing session of the year.  I felt the change of venue from the Burley Lodge Centre to the Heart in Headingley had made a significant difference, the room was much lighter and bigger with better energy flowing all round.  We even had a separate waiting room.  The visitor numbers also showed a great improvement.  I felt happy to be back in the healing centre, giving healing again. It felt right.

I spent the weekend completing and submitting an article to Journal of Higher Education Research & Development.  Now that I have time and space, writing is becoming more effortless and I am feeling positive about all my writing commitments this year although I am concerned about balancing the writing with my other academic and non-academic responsibilities.  I also watched a documentary on Netflix about the life of Nina Simone called ‘What Happened Miss Simone?’  The documentary revealed her personal traumas as well as featuring some of her more militant activism and of course her prodigious musical talent.  Nina’s activism side and determination to fight against oppression, renewed my own commitment to fight against disablism.  We also went to see ‘Darkest Hour’ directed by Joe Wright and starring Gary Oldman.  The film portrayed Churchill’s character well and his emotional life when faced with dilemmas and making problematic decisions during the Second World War.  This film brought home for me the difficulties of the choices we make and the importance of integrity and living from our principles. 

All in all an encouraging, productive and educational week.  More updates to follow.