Tuesday, September 08, 2009

today : The Baroness

I didn't personally know Baroness Nicky Chapman but for much of her life she lived on my street, so we were used to - for as long as I can remember and from when she was a child - her being around. I saw her last year tootling along in her wheelchair. She wasn't much older than me but I didn't have anything to do with her because Nicky was educated at home and then at a special school for people with disabilities. My Mum says that she used to chat with Nicky's Mum and even at a young age, perhaps ten or eleven, Nicky would join in and voice strong opinions. She told me that because Nicky was so small people would look strangely at two women apparently chatting with a baby in a pram (an image that puts me in mind of Stewie Griffin - although not in character, obviously). I was reminded of her later when I went to College to do my PGCE. It was the same college where she'd got her degree and people still talked about her. She was a star wherever she went.

Lucky for me that my congenital disability wasn't debilitating until recently. Nicky Chapman was written off at birth with brittle bone disease. In 1961 the fact that her body was so frail and problematic meant her brain and personality were disregarded. Her parents were apparently told to put her in an institution and then try for a 'normal' child. Shocking, I know. Not too many years later I was in hospital for the first two months of my life and my parents were only allowed to visit for a few minutes a day. I think it still upsets my Mum when she goes into hospitals.

Famously, Nicky Chapman kept statistics of negative discrimination, counting the 9 London taxis that ignored her in one day and the hundreds in a year. From the House of Lords she used her voice to highlight this hidden and ignored discrimination. And now that I am using stuff like wheelchairs and walking sticks I am acutely aware of it. How nobody thinks to design the built environment to be disabled-friendly, despite it being very easy and cost-effective. How so much of life is inaccessible because people just don't think - such as supermarkets placing heavy objects on high shelves out of reach of wheelchair users and too heavy to lift for many, including the elderly. How the lot of the disabled is ignored or even disparaged (I should really - Nicky-style - compile stats of the large number of people who complain to me, an obviously disabled driver, about blue-badge parking being some kind of undeserved privilege, or the people who speak to me like I'm an imbecile because I'm shopping from an electric cart).

Two personal examples I could give:

I worked on the 9th floor of a building. Arriving one morning the lift was broken, which meant to get to my office/teaching room I would have to go up 18 flights of busy, crowded steps. Instead of going home I did the steps and it took me almost 40 minutes. I phoned upstairs and apologised in advance for missing the daily morning meeting. When I got to the 9th floor with my dodgy foot screaming in pain, a couple of management types made cutting remarks about my absence and, even when I re-explained what had happened, because of previously booked meeting that was scheduled before I started there and my office was considered 'spare', I was still reshuffled to work in another room on the floor above for part of the day. This meant four more flights of stairs as well as the 18 to get back down at the end of the day. Perhaps they did it as some kind of punishment as they were pretty nasty people all told. But I guess they actually did it because it was easier for me to move out than for them to use another room and tell the attendees about the change. Other peoples' pain is easy to ignore because you can't see it and in my experience there is a no win situation. If you complain you are a complainer: if you are stoic then there is clearly nothing wrong.

Some time ago I went to a wedding. Planned into the schedule of the day was drinks on the lawn of the hotel. Very nice - apart for anyone who simply cannot walk on soft and uneven ground. Then, the photographs were taken on the lawn and nobody took into account the fact that I couldn't be involved. A week or two later I got a thank-you card from the bride and groom. Inserted was a memento of the day. A copy of the group photo of every guest raising a glass of champagne. Except I wasn't on it. It was as if my effort to attend had been wiped from history. The couple are lovely, kind people. I am sure it was just a minor detail overlooked - like forgetting to put a vegetarian option on a menu. But its impact was pretty big on me. I'm okay with not being able to join in the country dancing in the evening, but it made me feel as if I was a pretty pointless invitee.

I am always wary of signalling the achievement of disabled people as special. Anything a disabled person does is often not in the face of their condition, but in the face of other peoples' prejudiced perception of their condition. So she should be celebrated simply as an achiever first. The fact that she was the first peer ever to be born with a serious disability itself says a lot. I can only think of David Blunkett as someone else in Parliament with a serious disability. It's pathetic that it took until the turn of century for these people to get into positions of influence. The statistic is all we need to tell us that not so much has changed in her tragically too-short lifetime.

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