Props to Sista Zai, storyteller and thought leader, for introducing me to this passage – follow her on Facebook here.
You best believe I’m adding this bell hooks book to my long reading list.
“Even though feminist thinking and practice focusing on connections between racism and sexism helped generate awareness of the way in which black womanhood is devalued in an imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchal culture, individual black females must continually work to challenge and change negative perceptions of our being and our behavior. As teachers, we struggle to resist students and colleagues placing us in the role of mammy caretaker because they have been unconsciously taught that this is a black woman’s place. When I began writing and teaching about the connections between racism and sexism, I was often told that I was so angry. I refused to accept this projected identity. Instead, I would challenge audiences to consider why analysis of race, gender, and class that called into question accepted ways of thinking always appeared to them to come from a place of anger rather than a place of awareness. Often, the individuals who accused me of being angry were masking their own rage at being confronted and challenged.” [emphasis mine]
~ bell hooks, Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom
The passage I bolded is of particular interest me, observing the way liberals respond to critical thinkers, and how people take critiques and analyses that are not personal, really personally. I am questioning what is wrong with being angry, if the anger is about a very real injustice. But I am also thinking about how critical thinkers need to do continuous work on themselves to ensure that the critiques they do offer are not coming from ego (ego-related resentment, envy, etc). Sometimes, that does mean reflecting on the anger we feel, making sure it’s coming from a pure place within us. And if it isn’t, doing the work to release that shit so we can focus on what is essential.
If you didn’t know her in life… don’t waste any more time! Get acquainted with her right now.
Stella Young was a naturally gifted comedian, journalist, disability activist, educator, thinker, and all-around great human being. Her journey sadly ended on 6th December 2014. She was just 32. There are no words.
Stella had so many interests and passions, but she had a particular and remarkable gift for getting people to shift their perspectives about disability – in particular, for getting people to understand that:
- Having a disabled body is not a bad thing in and of itself – it can be a source of pride, rare insights, and community.
- There is virtually nothing different about the dreams and desires of disabled people compared to that of “able-bodied” people.
- What diminishes the quality of life of disabled people is not so much the physical or intellectual condition of disability itself. It is the ignorance of others, being shut out of over 80% of public spaces and social life due to inaccessibility, and the marginalization and endangerment that comes with living in a society that regards disabled people as unfortunate burdens, not the vital and valuable citizens they are.
She argued with focused and unwavering clarity that the autonomy, self-determination and basic human rights of disabled people matter, against the backdrop of a society in which the autonomy, self-determination and basic human rights of disabled people are still regularly violated.
Stella helped make disability, widely seen as a minority interest, a mainstream issue in many people’s minds. She did it by absolutely refusing to be marginalized herself – by being vocal about her needs and rights, and calling discrimination when she saw it. And she defied dodgy expectations through the sheer force of her personality and presence.
In the process, she created change. And changed countless lives. Mine was one of them.
I urge you to get acquainted with Stella through the body of work she has left behind – her comedy, her media work, her interviews, and her writing. Stella will be entertaining, educating, and creating change for years to come – this I am certain of.
Stella Young’s life and activism will be honoured with a public memorial service at Melbourne Town Hall this coming Friday, from 11am.
The service will also be beamed out on Federation Square’s Big Screen and broadcast live on ABC News 24 and on 774 ABC Victoria.
The memorial dress code is “Fabulous” – bright colours and minimal black.
“[I] am a fully rounded human being with a degree from the university of life, a diploma from the school of hard knocks, and three gold stars from the kindergarten of getting the shit kicked out of me.”
Captain Edmund Blackadder
Been busy. Back soon.
Verity Firth – current CEO of the Australian Public Education Foundation – is certainly an engaging, convincing speaker. This is a brief clip of her at the 2013 Public Education Foundation awards:
I went to a public pre-school, primary school, and secondary school in the early 2000s. In secondary school, I experienced none of the wonderful boons of ‘community’ and quality Verity describes in the video above. A large part of that was due to personal, specific circumstances: acute physical and mental health issues (without adequate support or treatment) – causing prolonged absences, extreme anxiety and depression, poor concentration, and a general feeling of being unsafe at school. All this had a detrimental effect on the education I received in those crucial secondary years. I am keenly aware of how important mental health, and familial, cultural and professional support is, for a student – and how the absence of such things can be a profound handicap in life.
Layering and exacerbating those “unique” circumstances, there were also environmental factors that impacted the public education I received, and set it quite apart from the wonderful utopia Verity describes: the schools I attended weren’t terribly ethnically diverse. The (too) high population secondary school I attended was comprised of mostly Anglo and Asian kids, with a good deal of visible self-segregation going on. I had a few truly great teachers, who fostered within me a belief in my own ability to learn, and inspired me to do so. But I also had quite a few stooges. So many examples of poor role-modelling… but I’ll just give you a taste. It is no revelation that some teachers, like people in general, aren’t so great.
There was the legal studies teacher seemingly obsessed with talking about race, and his much younger foreign wife. Another teacher who liked to hold the class back and release kids in groups according to eye or hair colour, for her own pleasure. Another teacher who repeatedly turned a blind eye to bad behaviour – who even said and did nothing whilst an Asian student trying to give a presentation was verbally abused by a group of Anglo-Australian boys (they hurled racist and sexist comments at her the entire time she was speaking, in a tiny classroom. Man heard, did nothing). Another teacher who showed up extremely late to most of the classes – just in time to give us a condensed lecture on the Australian political system. Really nice guy, but… distracted much? He had two important full-time jobs at the school, and perhaps that wasn’t a good idea.
Leaving school was thus a relief, but also a terrible let down. I started off in life a curious, conscientious child and eager student, hungry to learn. I left school a cynical, dejected, maladjusted teenager, with a phobia of institutionalised educational settings, and actual classrooms. Rather than saying goodbye to a “community”, leaving my compulsory years behind felt like fleeing Alcatraz, or the end of some horrible ordeal. I do think I am an unusually sensitive person. But I also think a lot of the support that I needed, and did not receive, during those years, are forms of support most – if not all – students need in order to really thrive in their studies* [see note below].
BASIC support such as:
- A personally, physically and culturally safe and respectful learning environment – certainly one in which a student is not subjected to abuse or humiliation by other students or, perhaps more importantly, the teachers. How best to foster this environment is the great question.
- Support for health and wellbeing, of mind and body: advice towards and the provision of healthy food; forms of exercise able to be undertaken by the student (i.e. disabilities being taken into consideration – would have been nice to have had that, rather than having to constantly explain that my inability to run in P.E was not caused by laziness); mental health education and support services, the promotion of a school culture in which stigma is combated.
- Smaller classes, so students can have more one-to-one time with a teacher. Holy jeebus. I know for certain I would have fared better with that.
- Early detection and support for learning disabilities – matching kids with the modes of learning that work for them best, with an approach focusing on strengths, not deficits.
Some other forms of support are not and cannot be the responsibility of the school to provide, but they certainly make a big difference (and I list these here not as a criticism of my upbringing, merely as an informed observation of things that are helpful):
- Coming from a family or cultural background with an academic and/or reading culture.
- Parent(s) or Guardian(s) who are truly engaged with their child’s development and education – not just when things go wrong. Perhaps even involved in that “school community” Verity alludes to. I cannot remember exactly how many parent-teacher interviews were attended, but I believe that number is close to three. And school functions? In high school, none – but to be fair, I avoided them too 😉
- Parent(s) or Guardian(s) who understand the realities, the real contemporary challenges, their children are facing, and who are able to provide guidance. Or, in lieu of that capacity, have an understanding of where to go to in order to get that help/support. School? Social Worker? GP? Community Centre? Community Group? Church/Religious Group? Sexual Health or Family Planning Centre? Etc.
- Parent(s) or Guardian(s) who themselves have support to be safe and well. Who have support emotionally, socially, physically and financially.
- A healthy, open and communicative home environment.
- A healthy lifestyle outside of school… a balanced life. Other self-esteem building interests, and time to pursue them.
Verity Firth evidently was lucky enough to receive a start in life, and a public school education, that gave her a fantastic foundation for lifelong learning and success – one that allowed her to develop her innate talents, talents that she is now putting to tremendous use in the world. From her descriptions, her child is now lucky enough to be receiving a public school education of equal quality, and that is inspiring and encouraging to hear. Wouldn’t it be great to know that, no matter where the public school is they are attending, a child is going to receive the basic support they need to be the best student – and human being – they can be?
There will always be differences and “inequalities”, because we are all individuals, we all have different circumstances, and different backgrounds. What I would like to see (what I think most supporters of public education would like to see) would be a public system comprised of schools equipped with all the resources and high quality staff they need, in order to foster the kind of learning environment their particular kids need, in order to thrive.
A good time to re-visit where elected representatives, the major parties, minor parties and independents stand in regards to public education, I think. What with an election happening and all……
*Note: many of these things are addressed by some public schools today, and were probably addressed by some other public schools at the time – I am merely stating they were absent from my experience. Take my epic failure as a cautionary tale.
I haven’t forgotten about instalments 3 & 4 of ‘Fashion Victims”: clothing industry outsourcing & ethical consumption. Just working on some articles and other work at the moment. Aforementioned posts, and more, to come. I hope you are well 🙂
I also just discovered I may be eligible to acquire assistive technology software. Super excited – would make me that much more productive and I am elated at the prospect! Has made my year! I don’t know why it never occurred to me before to investigate this. Long way to go still before driving is possible but I do fine without that. Being able to “type” faster, however? For someone who writes, absolutely essential. Tech empowered Disability for the win.
I did this exercise with a group of people the other day. Great for visual learners! And great for all of us who are not of Aboriginal descent to do.
You will need about 1600 black matchsticks, and a handful of white matchsticks for this exercise.
Get everyone to gather around a designated floor space or large table top. Line up the black matchsticks next to each other, so that they create a continuous “worm” or row.
Once all 1600 black matchsticks are lined up, ask the group how many generations their family has been in Australia. Find the highest number. In the group I had, the maximum number was 5 (an Anglo-Australian woman).
According to the number, get an equal number of white matchsticks (in our case, of course, it was 5). Line them at the end of the “worm”.
Then, explain this to the group:
EACH MATCHSTICK REPRESENTS ONE GENERATION (25 years, or thereabouts).
THE BLACK MATCHSTICKS REPRESENT ABORIGINAL AUSTRALIA.
THE WHITE MATCHSTICKS REPRESENT WHITE & MIGRANT AUSTRALIA.
Some of the more CONSERVATIVE ESTIMATES say that ABORIGINAL PEOPLE have been on the continent of Australia for around 1600 generations.
The First Fleet (the 11 ships that sailed from Great Britain to establish the first European colony in Australia) sailed into Botany Bay in January 1788, or 8 to 10 generations ago.
1600 generations, versus 8 to 10 generations.
Visually, this looked something like this
(using my groups 5 generation maximum):
Something to think about.
My immediate reaction when I first did this exercise was “Wow. That certainly puts the whole ‘we grew here, you flew here’ nonsense well and truly in the shade.”
Just a bit 😉
A little more humility and perspective would help race relations in this country a great deal.
Australia, very young and mostly free…
A beautiful, wonderful country… with severe blindspots.
I delivered this talk to a group of stakeholders, local government people and educators this week as part of a seminar series called Ideas that Work, being run by Brimbank Community Learning Strategy. The topic of this seminar was “Delving Deeper into Diversity: issues in lifelong learning and education” and I was asked to discuss perceptions of disability, with the assumption that perceptions inevitably influence approaches to education and integration.
Ladies and Gentlemen, when I was asked to speak to you here today, I wasn’t really sure if I had anything to offer by way of insight. I have never worked for local government, have no qualifications in policy, and I’m pursuing an education in creative screenwriting and, eventually, hopefully, media and community activism, after many years of being in the wilderness of mental and physical illness. I’m just a low key, regular person with a passion for writing who happens to have a disability. I have no expertise.
What I do have, however, is experience and a writers eye – the experience of being able bodied, and the experience of being disabled. My experiences have caused me to radically change the way I see myself, others, and the world at large, many times over. In a relatively short space of time.
I’ve learnt that attitudes, and the way we see – or don’t see – people, matters a great deal. Attitudes tend to act as a filter of what we perceive to be important. What we perceive to be important influences the agenda. So today, I want to talk to you about my experience, and ask you to review the way you see disability and people with disabilities.
13 years ago now, I became a very, very incomplete quadriplegic.
5 years ago, I became a paraplegic.
Only 2 years ago, though, I started calling myself disabled.
Why is this? Why, despite having various levels of physical impairment from the age of 14 onward, did it take me so long to make peace with that 3-syllabic word?
In acquiring a disability, I discovered that I was, in fact, a closet disablist. I discovered that I had unconscious attitudes towards disability, the disabled, people with disability. I discovered that I was looking at disability through a particular lens that, I dare say, many people look at disability through.
And I discovered that somehow, somewhere along the line, I, like many people, had picked up the notion that to be disabled meant to be on the outside, in a separate group. It meant to be someone who was to be pitied. It meant hardship. It meant to be segregated from the majority of able-bodied people. It meant to be deficient in some way, and needing extra help from society, who would benevolently bestow it upon you. And it probably meant that people perceived your lifestyle, your needs, your sexuality, or contribution to society as somehow “different”, abnormal, or depleted.
So when, at the age of 22, I became permanently wheelchair-bound myself, I had to face all of those unconscious beliefs head on. And I got to see, for the first time, those beliefs influencing how other people responded to me.
The first unconscious belief to be challenged was my perception of what people with disabilities need. After sustaining paraplegia, I spent 6 months in a rehabilitation hospital. Most of the other inpatients were men under the age of 25. Prior to acquiring their disabilities, they had led active lives, and many had gained their disability in the middle of a physically challenging or dangerous activity. They were interested in all the things that young men are naturally interested in – enjoying themselves, travelling, finding careers, socialising, relationships, sex, sport.
In an adjacent assisted living facility I also met a few accident victims who had sustained serious intellectual disabilities. It made me sad one day when, sitting in the courtyard, a young man from that living facility sat down next to me and proceeded to tell me, as best as he could, how desperately he wanted to get out of that place.
And I realised, I mean really and truly understood, that people with disabilities, whether that disability is acquired or congenital, physical or intellectual, have the same basic human needs as able-bodied people. Like anybody else, we want to find love, be accepted by our peers and society, pursue education, a career, call the shots in our own lives and be independent.
It was not the first time I had been in a rehabilitation hospital. The first time was actually when I was 14. That time, though, I was the only in-patient under 40. All the other in-patients were stroke victims – mostly elderly, learning how to speak again. But the lesson I learnt then was the same – everyone there wanted to understand, be accepted, be part of the community, and have a measure of independence.
After my paraplegia I went through much the same difficulties in coming to terms with my new reality as the boys did. Though the only young woman in there, I found a young female sexual health counsellor to be a great sounding board for the issues I was grappling to come to terms with. Apart from the physical realities of having a disability, one of the strangest things you have to face when you acquire a disability is the reality that many people will now see you differently, and treat you accordingly. Whether this is a good or bad thing is debatable, but, inevitably, it can have an impact on how you see yourself and your self-esteem, which will impact on your social self and your ability to pursue opportunities in life.
Facing the reactions and perceptions of others about my self, my life, and what I was capable of, led me to review some of my own attitudes towards people with disabilities. I had always considered myself progressive in this regard, but, like so many, I realised that I had been operating with the same tendency towards pity for or over-admiration of people with disabilities. Becoming disabled forced me to move from that mindset, which I now regard as a serious impediment to integration, to a place of empathy.
Empathy is sometimes disregarded or undervalued because it is seen as subjective in nature. But as an aspiring writer, I am a huge fan of EMPATHY.
In my humble opinion, It is the great equaliser, because it is about seeing the humanity in others – seeing yourself in others – including in those who, on the surface, are not like you. Empathy is about understanding where other people are coming from. And exercising empathy inevitably leads to the thought: “If I were that person, what would I want? Would I want to be pitied or patronized? Would I want to be segregated, or be regarded as “different?”
When I first asked myself this question, the answer was a resounding NO.
And, as I’ve begun to meet, listen to and interact with other people with disabilities, notably with some people with congenital disabilities, I’ve come to realize that it is actually a fairly popular view.
Many of you might be aware of the ABC’s Ramp Up website, which was launched last year on International People with Disabilities Day. The aim of the site is to ramp up debate about disability in Australia, and it features articles and opinion pieces written predominantly by people with disabilities. Any of you who have perused the website yourself will have noticed vibrant debate in the comments section under these opinion pieces – debate that often spills over onto Facebook, Twitter, and the blogosphere. Given the nature of the medium, the internet is the perfect place for many people with disabilities to connect, exchange, debate, organize, and express their opinions.
Todd Winther, a Brisbane based PhD candidate in political science and university tutor, wrote an amazing opinion piece last year about his encounters with disablism of the patronizing/pitying kind in a piece called “Are you defined by what you can’t do?” I will read the beginning of it here:
[please follow this link to read the introduction up to “That story sums up my life.”]
Todd Winther, you see, has cerebral palsy. He goes on to criticize “advocacy groups” who try to inspire pity by using stereotypes of helplessness and disability to attract support for their causes. Furthermore, he expresses discontent with groups that try to bring people together solely based on their common disabilities, despite the fact that they may have seldom else in common. Whether he is right or wrong is of course debatable. It is, after all, an opinion piece.
But until reading his article, I had never considered this perspective before. I am sharing it here with you now because I think Todd’s point-of-view is in fact shared by many disabled people. And I think perspectives like this can and should be factored in when we think about education for people with disabilities, and integration. They have to be. People with disabilities are the ones who are most affected by the consequences of education policies.
And it isn’t just us people with disabilities who lose when society excludes or patronize us. Our society is poorer for it too. Stella Young, writer, educator, comedian and Editor of Ramp Up expressed an alternate point of view in an Op Ed piece, titled Don’t Dis My Disability. Ms Young has a genetic condition and is a wheelchair user. In contrast to Todd Winther, she embraces her disability and the “disabled community”, regarding it as a rich and diverse community with much to offer the broader population – a population that is simultaneously discriminating against them. Our society undervalues and excludes the people in this community to its own detriment.
On her disability, Stella says:
“Learning about the social model of disability ramped up my sense of pride in who I am enormously. It’s the belief that disability lies not within your body or your brain, but within society. So in my case, I’m not disabled by the fact that I can’t walk, but by the steps that prevent me from getting into a building.”
Further on she says:
“Calling myself a disabled person makes me feel empowered. It reminds me that my disability isn’t about my body, it’s about the barriers I face in my life. It drives me to work towards breaking down those barriers.”
To Stella, her disability is something she is immensely proud of. It is also something that gives her and other disabled people perspective that perhaps the able-bodied population lack, and would benefit from hearing and understanding. For example, by merely having a pronounced physical difference, Stella gets frequent insight into the awkwardness of able-bodied people when in the presence of a person with a disability. I can attest to this myself. Disability does bring out strange things in people. It also illuminates many of the blind spots people have in regards to all kinds of disability. In regards to simple access issues, I am still baffled when people who know me try to take me to venues that have multiple stairs, and who are then genuinely surprised when they “remember” I can’t use them. Despite the fact that disability does and will affect a huge percentage of the population, able-bodied people just don’t think about these things. I know – I used be one of them. Similar blind spots exist in regards to other types of disabilities. This lack of awareness or consciousness is a huge barrier to integration and social inclusion.
Stella’s views have been greatly influenced by the late disabled activist Jenny Morris and, in particular, her book “Pride Against Prejudice”. Jenny advocated the notion that it is okay to acknowledge that you have a disability, and that society discriminates against you because of it. For sure, in purely physical/medical terms, disability is indeed a deficit. Yet it is often external physical buildings and spaces, and deficient prejudiced social attitudes, that are the most disabling thing.
Both Stella and Todd’s opinion pieces generated much debate on the Ramp Up forum and on social media. The responses were varied, but both received much support for their points-of-view from other disabled people. Though they differ in their views on the so-called “disability community”, and on their own disabilities, both agree on one thing: that pity, or patronizing attitudes, and the policies that perpetuate these attitudes, are counterproductive to “normalizing” disability and breaking down barriers to integration in society. These barriers are external; raising the consciousness of non-disabled people to recognize their complicity in perpetuating these barriers is essential to eliminating them. So disability education needs to be about educating able-bodied people to see disabled people as their equals, and to see disabled issues as their issues too. One of the best ways to encourage that is to socialise and educate disabled and non-disabled people together.
So, what does all of this have to do with Brimbank’s learning strategy?
One in five residents of the City of Brimbank is affected by some form of disability, with higher proportions of people with complex physical and mental health needs than the Melbourne metropolitan area. The numbers are set to increase with an aging population.
The learning strategy recognizes the importance of engaging people as early as possible in various types of social learning, and at all stages of the life cycle, for the well being of the community, individual well-being, and greater economic opportunities for all. This is especially true for young people with disabilities, who may experience difficulties in entering the workforce because of their disability.
Moreover, thinking long term, If we are serious about true inclusion of people with disabilities in education and breaking down the social and attitudinal barriers they face in society, we absolutely need to get to a point where we truly start seeing people with disabilities as normal people who, through no fault of their own, face barriers to inclusion that we as a collective will benefit from eradicating. And we must. Because if we don’t, we will continue to miss out on all of the things that people with all kinds of disabilities can contribute to enrich our communities.