unthinking disabilism in higher education

A PhD position became available recently, connected to deafness. I had a look at it, but decided it wasn’t the right sphere for me, that I didn’t have the right skills for it, so I passed it on to our postgrad community in case anyone there fancied it.

I was asked several times why i didn’t go for it, as I’d be perfect for it.

They didn’t say this on the basis that they thought that my skills, knowledge and discipline made me perfect for it.

They said it on the basis that I’m deaf, and it’s a PhD connected to deafness.

This actually made me quite cross, because it is disabilism, pure and simple. it takes no account of me as a person, my skills, and reduces me down to one thing and one thing only: my deafness. And here’s the thing – they didn’t even see that it was ablist, that it was prejudice. It wasn’t malicious in any way – I suspect they’d be dreadfully upset if they ever read this, that they had inadvertently been so prejudiced – but … fact remains that that is exactly what they’ve done.

Imagine suggesting to a black person that they’d be perfect for a PhD examining skin colour in some way? Or a woman that they’d be ideal to study the effects of oestrogen? Or a transgendered lesbian that they should study the impact of sexuality in transgendered people? Or a Catholic that they should study the troubles in Ireland?

It would be very frowned upon, of course, all of these. People would – quite rightly – be upset and disgusted.

So why should it be acceptable to suggest that someone should do a PhD incorporating deafness purely on the basis of their disability?

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not by any means suggesting that people should not do those things. That the black person shouldn’t study skin colour, that the woman shouldn’t study the effects of oestrogen, and so on. If they CHOOSE to do so, that’s up to them. It’s a matter of choice.

I don’t choose to study deafness. I feel that for me it is the obvious route and that I want to study something totally unconnected to my deafness. That is my choice, and I have a right to make it. If others want to study something connected to their deafness, then that is their choice, and I support and applaud their right to make that choice.

But for me, or anyone, to be encouraged to study a field purely on the basis of their ‘label’ – be it gender, skin colour, religion, sexuality, – or, yes, disability – is just wrong. It suggests that they aren’t capable of more. That we should stay within our sphere, because that’s where we belong.

And that makes me very, very angry.

I’m much more than just my ears. much, much more. I should be free to study as I wish, to the best of my own skills and capability (which is very capable), just as anyone who is hearing is permitted to do.

It makes me very, very sad.

It makes me realise that there is still far too much work to do to educate people, even people in higher education settings. Rightly or wrongly, I expect more from them (and these suggestions came from other PhD students, not members of staff). It makes me sad that these intelligent people can’t see further than their own experience, their own privileged life.

It makes me very, very determined.

If nothing else, it makes me more determined not to go the ‘deaf’ route, to opt for studying deafness in my field in some way. I’m happy to facilitate education for others, to aid with deaf awareness etc. But I want to study what I will be studying, and my path will not change.

It makes me determined to do my bit to educate other people. It makes me determined to make the institution realise that they are failing their staff and students in not providing disability awareness. It needs to change – and it will change.

the removal of disability employment advisers from job centres

Thanks to my twitter account, I’m now kept fairly up to date with the goings-on of the deaf world – politically, at least. One of the people I follow is Alison, or @Deaf, who often posts really interesting news about deafness or disability politics that touches on deafness. (Thanks, Alison!) This morning Alison posted a link to a blog post by Kate Belgrave on getting rid of Disability Employment Advisers at Job Centres, which made me remember that I hadn’t posted anything about my most recent experience of ‘service’ from our local job centre.

Although a student, I am a part time one, and moreover, a self-funded one. This means that apart from an award to help with part of my tuition fees, I support myself. It’s not easy. Anyone who talks about students having the life of riley really needs a reality check because it is incredibly difficult to undertake postgraduate study; funding is competitive and not automatic, no matter how good your grades are. I have a first class degree, and in line to get distinctions for my Master’s degree. Funding for a PhD is still not guaranteed. But I digress.

Although I worked (temporarily) last summer in between graduating and starting my MA course, matters were made more complicated by the fact that a) my partner was out of work as well and b) we had to move house (the same week as I started my MA course. My stress levels were unbelievable, as I’m sure you can all appreciate). We rapidly discovered that the house needed work doing to it that the surveyor’s report had NOT uncovered (more stress) and by the beginning of December, with neither of us working, we were broke. Flat broke.

So, we resigned ourselves and went down the job centre. At first it seemed to be okay. We were assigned to an adviser called Neil who told us we needed to be job searching for 36 hours a week, but not to worry about it over Christmas, as everything was shut. By January we were searching hard for jobs. Our second appointment came in the second week of January. It was a busy, loud environment and my partner (whose ears work perfectly fine) didn’t hear Neil calling our name, and of course, neither did I, despite Neil standing right behind me (and I didn’t see him). When I eventually realised he was there I got a really filthy look… like ‘how dare you keep me waiting’. He had clearly forgotten that I was deaf, despite me asking at the previous appointment for it to be listed clearly on my notes. Before very long he was putting pressure on us. Why hadn’t we applied for more jobs? (in the previous week, my partner had applied for, I think, 5 every day). Why hadn’t I applied for this receptionist job? (um. telephones….). Why hadn’t I applied for this shop job (um… customer services… ). It was like he had absolutely zero understanding of the fact that I’m DEAF and that there are certain things I just cannot do.

And it was like that, week, after week, after week. It wasn’t just me either. When my partner eventually found work – his first job in more than 10 years, his dream job, working for a dream company, in an industry he never thought he would ever work in again, it was initially part time, two days a week, which put his hours in at 15.5 hours a week. Anyone with job centre experience knows that you can do work, up to 16 hours a week, but at 16 hours, you get kicked off JSA. The company my partner were working for had actually stretched themselves to hire him for those two days – they’d interviewed both him and another chap for the same job, and wanted them both, knew they were going to need them both in the months to come, but could only afford to give my partner the two days a week at that point. ‘Bear with us, please, in a couple months, we’ll make it full time’, they said. This actually suited my partner just fine – at that point, after being out of work for 10+ years, the part time work gave him a chance to get used to working again, instead of jumping in at the deep end with 5 days of work, which quite frankly, worried him, about whether he would cope with it.

Instead of saying “well done”… Neil’s reaction was to put pressure on my partner. “Can’t you get another half hour out of them?” … he seemed to totally miss the point, that the company was already stretching themselves financially by employing my partner at all. By pushing for that extra half hour, it could have wrecked any chance of a permanent full time job. In the end up,, my partner refused to give Neil the details of this new job because he was so concerned that Neil was going to call them and essentially ruin it for him. At around the same time, I got a temporary part time job as a teaching assistant at the uni I attend, and also a week’s worth of admin, which put me over the 16 hours a week limit. Between us both, we were kicked off JSA for a week.

I re-applied almost immediately. The first interview we had with Neil it was clear that he still did not remember that I was deaf. No attempts to slow down so that I could understand what he was saying. No attempts to talk directly to me, he was constantly talking to his computer keyboard. Constantly asking me to consider jobs that were totally unsuitable for me, given my deafness. Within five minutes he was hectoring my partner again. ‘Just half an hour extra, you must ask them, if you don’t, I’ll have to sanction you’. I was LIVID. It got to the point where I would go in there and refuse to talk to him, because the only way that I could retain control was to just bite my lip continually for the whole 20 minute appointment. My partner would answer for me (he’s better at remaining calm when he has to).

Around 2 weeks after we signed on again, my partner came home from work absolutely over the moon. His company wanted him to start the following Monday, full time. Less than 2 months in, actually, 6 weeks, they had kept their promise. My partner could sign off, and he wanted me to sign off as well. What he wanted didn’t come into it – we would have been kicked off regardless, with him working full time – but I was glad to. We signed off immediately, and the relief from stress was incredible – palpable. Our daily lives had become controlled by Neil, by fear of what would happen on Friday (our sign on day), we would argue at weekends, argue in the days before sign on day as we each struggled to cope with the stress and feared that we would never find a way to get off benefits. As it happens I was close to requesting to see a disability employment adviser because it was very apparent that Neil had no interest whatsoever in understanding my deafness, nor working with me to find me a job that I could do. It wasn’t just me. My partner has a disability too, and Neil showed a similar disrespect for his needs. Frankly, he just did not care. All he wanted was for us to get out of his office and not bother him again. It was clear that he hated his job, and hated us, with a passion. That man should NOT have been working as an adviser, because he was totally incompetent, and could not have ‘advised’ his way out of a wet paper bag.

To read that IDS now wants to get rid of Disability Employment Advisers… it just makes my heart sink. We were lucky. We were able to get off benefits relatively quickly, and with a first class degree, I knew that if necessary, I could find something on a graduate scheme and give up on my dreams of working as a lecturer in my field. It would have been horrible to have to do that, sure, but between a rock and a hard place, I would have done it. We’re both intelligent people, and we had the love and support of our families and friends as well, during that dreadful, dreadful period. Even through all the stress, we knew it was temporary, and that it would come to an end. For those who don’t have all that, the support of their families, the knowledge that they would get out of it, that they would find something… to have to deal with a man like Neil without respite, knowing that there was no way out, no understanding of their position… I fear for people. I fear that they will be pushed into jobs that they are unable to do, entering a cycle of finding work, losing it, and signing back on – with the attendant spiralling depression that will result. I fear that it will not be long before we read of suicides and deaths – we already are with other disabilities. The Independent recently wrote that the conservative rhetoric means that people with disabilities have no choice but to live with what is happening… or die.

I honestly believe that in the years to come, people will look back on this period with a sense of horror, much as we now look at what happened during the holocaust. I believe that people like IDS will be branded as criminals. I believe the Tory party will have to change its name completely – and will probably spend years in opposition as a result of what happens in this parliament. I only hope that events happen that makes it so that Cameron and co can no longer govern, and that they are forced to call an election earlier than five years.

And if this country votes them in again.. then I wash my hands of the UK. I really do.

I’m deaf, I’m not disabled! Why should I do this?

Blogging Against Disabilism Day

Blogging Against Disabilism Day

Today is May 1st – known to many around the world as Blogging against Disabilism Day. A day where people, who are affected by disability and experience prejudice because of it, write about it. That’s all – a very simple idea, the brainchild of Goldfish and who is now ably supported by her husband, Mr. Goldfish. It’s a fantastic day, with tons of really moving, really well written blogs that are posted, worldwide, throughout the day – and in the days after, since some people are not always well enough to take part on the day.

But here’s the thing. This blog is aimed at deaf people. And I know many deaf people really have a problem with disability, with being seen as disabled – and as a result, will totally reject any idea of joining in with BADD.

‘Why should I do this? Great for them, but I’m deaf, not disabled!!!’

Here’s why: because you are.

I’m sorry, but to the world at large, to the world that mostly doesn’t care, you are deaf. Your ears don’t work properly. That lumps you squarely in the same category as all the other people that have bits of them that don’t work properly – eyes, legs, spines, nerves, arms, lungs … and so on. Dis-abled – meaning not abled. Your ears don’t work. Therefore you are disabled.

Oh, I understand why there has been a wholesale rejection of the idea that as deaf people are disabled. Deaf people have had to fight long and hard for the idea that just because they are deaf, doesn’t mean that they can’t do anything (in fact, they most decidedly can). There’s also been a wholesale rejection of the disability model, because for many deaf people, they feel that they are a cultural minority, with a different language and culture, just as, say, Jewish people or Scottish Gaelics, and they have fought long and hard to be accepted as such, and more importantly, to qualify for government funding as such.

Believe me, I get all that.

But here’s the thing: the world out there doesn’t care whether you, as a deaf person, can still be a doctor. They may well be very admiring, in that inspiration porn kinda way, and wish in their minds that more disabled people would be like that. The world out there largely doesn’t care if you’re a cultural minority, about the incredible beauty of sign language, of the hilariously funny jokes of John Smith, the stunning poetry of Dorothy Miles – and so many other wonderfully creative, active, hard working, high achieving, deaf people.

We – your fellow deaf people – are not the ones that need to be convinced of all this.

The world out there thinks you’re disabled. It treats you as a disabled person. Subjects you to the same prejudice that disabled people have been suffering for a long time. [To give one example: you think only deaf people are affected by the recent changes to Access to Work? Hell, no.] The fact is, the last five years have been hellishly bad for disabled people. Actually, scratch that, the last ten years. There’s been a systematic programme on the part of the goverment – all government – to demonise the disabled. To call them scroungers, refer to them in degrogatory terms. This has been well documented and the changes to funding systems and benefit systems over the last five years has been the culmination of that.

And that’s why days like BADD are so terribly important for deaf people as well as disabled people. Because deaf people are disabled, and its important that deaf people’s voice is heard. Heard as part of the rising clamour of voices that are making the world out there, the voting public, realise the damage that has been done in the last ten years to the silent minority. It is often said that the measure of a society, of a government, is how it treats it’s weakest members. Churchill said it, Truman said it, Hubert Humphreys said it, Pope John Paul II said it – or variations on it. Right now, with an election looming, society is beginning to wake up and realise what has been done in its name, the people who have died in the cold, alone, in terror, because of the ‘pointless cruelty’. Right now, a tipping point is fast approaching, in the cultural hegemony of the disabled person as a scrounger, living off the state – and the disabled are aware of this, and working to maximise it.

You want to know why, as a deaf person, you should be joining BADD?

Because of this. Because you are disabled. Because your voice needs to be heard. Because on a day like this, what needs to happen is joining, support, not division, not rejection, to make sure that in the next five years, society doesn’t treat the disabled – i.e. YOU – as they have been doing for so long.

Take to your Keyboards. The time is now for you to write, to sign, to do VLogs about it. Show them how powerful deaf activism can be.

Take part in BADD.