UK Disability History Month 2016: Disability And Language
I was offline for most of yesterday, attending the launch of UK Disability History Month. Now in its 7th year, the Month runs from 22nd November to 22nd December. It continues to grow and continues to cover important disability issues through interesting events and useful resources, around themes decided each year by its founder and coordinator, disability rights campaigner Richard Rieser.
This year, as has become usual, disability activists, disabled people and our allies gathered in central London to launch the Month with an evening of interesting speeches and enjoyable entertainment based around this year’s theme, Disability and Language.
The evening started with writer and activist Maresa Mackeith reading out some of her original poetry. Maresa uses a method of communication which requires assistance from another person. This is usually known as Facilitated Communication. She is a founding member of Quiet Riot, a group of people without speech who all communicate through touch. As a disabled poet myself, I really enjoyed and related to her poetry, particularly the poem What Future? which is based on one of her friends who faces losing the money which allows him to have the assistance he needs to communicate his thoughts to the world.
Micheline Mason, another disabled poet and activist, also read some of her new original poetry. I particularly enjoyed her poem A Thousand Buttonholes which is about the life of a woman who caught polio as a baby and was forced to sew buttonholes on clothes in a long stay hospital even though she hated sewing! I count myself lucky that I cannot relate to the whole of this poem. Luckily disabled people have come far since the days of long stay hospitals, and these days many more of our hopes and dreams are recognised and usually encouraged by the people around us.
Lee Humber, a learning disability academic and activist from Ruskin College, Oxford, gave an interesting speech about the history of learning disabled people and the language used to describe them in the past and today.
Penelope Beschizza also gave an interesting speech, in British Sign Language (BSL), on where d/Deaf people stand today and how things have changed for the d/Deaf community over the last year. She also talked about the importance of seeing BSL as a foreign language in itself, something I have always agreed with and supported, even though I can hear and cannot speak BSL. She taught me something I didn’t know before- that BSL has only been recognised as BSL for forty years, a period of time that seems very short to me.
Richard Rieser, founder and coordinator of the Month, spoke about the words used to describe disabled people in the past and today, and how important it is to use positive language when describing and representing disability and disabled people. He mentioned particularly the difference between disability and impairment. Impairment is a limitation of function within an individual while disability is the loss or limitation of opportunities to live ‘normally’ within society caused by barriers created by society.
The evening ended with a short piece of drama by Access All Areas, a theatre company for adults with learning disabilities. Catch The Baby showed an adult male with learning disabilities being treated like a baby by his carer. It was very well performed and would have been funny if it wasn’t trying to represent the sad reality that so many learning disabled people face every day.
As a writer, I love and appreciate language more than most people. As a disabled person, my life experiences have taught me the great power of words. UK Disability History Month fully deserves to be praised for choosing this very important issue as its theme for this year. However, it deserves even more praise for recognising the value of nonverbal methods of communication such as Facilitated Communication and BSL. Maybe if more people recognise the importance of such methods, all disabled people will be able to share their talents with, and express their own thoughts to, the mainstream world, at their own pace.