It’s a cool summer afternoon, and I am sitting in a meeting hall, planning for another action. I am surrounded by a room of people of various backgrounds and various work experiences. Through the meeting I hear some enthusiastic voices, and see some flipchart paper covered in lots of great ideas. It feels like an empowering space – full of opportunity and hope.
But then I stop to watch body language. I notice how some ideas slip off the action planning. I notice how some people are told to remain silent. I notice that the meeting room in which this action planning is happening is up a flight of stairs with no elevator access. I notice that many of the organisers are being paid to be there, but the people who have been silenced don’t get a paycheck.
After the meeting, I sit in the cafeteria nearby another organiser. She is talking to others, exasperated sounds followed by soft whispers and giggles. They are talking about one of the guys who attended the meeting, and how his ideas are “loony” and how he won’t shut up in spaces. I say nothing, but feel my stomach turn to butterflies. I am worried that this is how they speak about me.
Planning an action takes time and work behind the scenes. People need to be emailed. Resources need to be gathered. Places need to be booked. Times and information needs to be shared. In the meeting, the guy they are laughing about is the only one who volunteers to take on a bulk of that work, despite not being paid to be there. Everyone’s fine with that, as long as he isn’t the spokesperson for the action.
The action is a success! The person they chose to be the spokesperson gets accolades. The guy they laughed at is acknowledged by the group and thanked briefly. The action is shared across social media and the various NGO workers’ websites as a PR success. The guy who was laughed at is hidden in the photos behind a large banner.
A week later, an email goes around saying that one of the organisations which helped with action is hiring. It’s a campaigner level recruitment. The guy who was laughed at applies immediately and enthusiastically, believing that the experience he has in organising will help him in getting the job. He doesn’t get called to interview – his application form didn’t express his experience in the right format. He didn’t use the right words, even though those everyone making the hiring decision know he has the experience because they worked with him on many actions. “Equal opportunities” they say when he asks further about it. They hire someone whose fresh out of University instead.
He’s hurt, but that doesn’t stop him. He believes passionately in the cause, and carrying on attending the organising spaces and doing the work. The other organisers see this, and presume that everything’s fine. They carry on exploiting his commitment to the cause. He keeps writing job applications and being quietly rejected.
This isn’t a true story, no. It’s many true stories – an amalgamation of things I have seen, heard and experienced. It’s a pattern I’ve seen in many different spaces – from the Green Party to every NGO I have worked and volunteered for to anarchist organising. It’s a pattern I’ve heard repeated by other disabled people. It’s a pattern I have experienced too (though I only really realised the extent to which I was exploited many years later).
In order to be listened to, respected and get paid for it, the many institutions of campaigning culture prefer those who are not “different”. When access needs are asked for, a lack of funds is immediately cited. When a more inclusive way of organising is asked for, empty promises ensue. And through all of this, disabled people are just expected to adapt or remove themselves from the space.
But the fact is – we bring a lot to organising spaces. We bring new ideas, we bring ways innovative ways of doing and thinking, we bring skills and knowledge. We have value, but our value isn’t seen as “presentable,” or our needs seen as “too much,” and that often results in us being used for free labour.
We are disabled by organising spaces, we are disabled by the lack of interest in building inclusive spaces, we are disabled by insitutions which will use us for photo opportunities but won’t meet our basic needs. We are disabled by organisers who dehumanise us and see us as the problem rather than the ways in which they organise.
We, disabled people, are not here to be used or to be given a backseat in an organising space and brought out when useful. The issues we want to campaign on and the experiences we’ve had which led us to campaign on these issues matter. We are an important part of society, and we will continue to exist into the futures you are fighting for.
Change-making organisations and institutions have a lot of work to do on tackling their own ableism, and how they use disabled people. These are some of the ways in which change could happen:
- Organising in ways which support disabled people to attend and respected – Sisters of Frida offer a great guide.
- Acknowledging and paying disabled people for the work that we do.
- Unlearning your own ableism and practises, and how that effects how you relate to disabled (including invisibly disabled) people.
- Getting to grips with the social model of disability (ie the idea that we are disabled by society) and how you and your organisation practise that.
- Slowing down – disabled people may need more time or support to complete things, but that also allows for organising to be more interdependent and deeply rooted.