All Posts by Chris Whit

Swimming with Dolphins 

As we approach the conclusion of another great holiday here in Cuba, there was one thing left to do: swim with Dolphins.

It has been on my bucket list for a while now but I’d not taken the opportunity on our previous visits. This time, Fran said I would regret it if I didn’t, especially as I was with my parents and it’s the stuff great memories are made of.

There were several things that struck me about the visit and the broader thoughts this led to. First was the majesty of the dolphins we saw, possessing tremendous power and yet moving with such care and grace.

Secondly, there was the emotional intelligence the dolphins had. I had been told before that they would pick up on how I was moving and engage with me in a different way as a result. As a person, I tend to believe things when the evidence demonstrates it is so. 

Sure enough, the dolphins studied me very carefully as I was waiting to enter the water. It was there our connection started. They helped me to interact with them, guided me in the water and didn’t playfully splash me (unlike the rest of our small group!) Seeing, and experiencing, is believing. 

This also reminded me a lot about partnership and the need to carefully learn from each other. This has been something of the theme of the holiday, especially given my previous blog (http://www.disabilityspeaks.com/2017/02/02/the-stare/) and events in America which have left me utterly bemused.

Oh that such dolphin emotional intelligence was a little more abundant. I think we all could do with a bit more of that at times, and if dolphins can do it so can we!

On my visit to Cuba I’ve also been struck by how accommodating the people are and how they will work to make anything possible. This mindset is all the more impressive given the lack of resources here. I’m fairly certain that the understanding of the social model of disability isn’t exactly on the priority list here. 

Yet things just happen, adjustments get made and there needs to be no court cases to ensure this is so. Maybe we should all be a little more Cuban too!

There is also the issue of risk. My dad, despite being a pensioner, had never been in the sea where he couldn’t touch the floor. We could have taken a shallow dolphin visit where we were up to our mid line in the water. We were able to say to my dad though that given we had a life jacket, the deeper dolphin area was worth a calculated risk. He took that risk and was thoroughly rewarded. Often, calculated risks are worth the rewards they bring! 

It could be argued that this words are tinged with the rose tinted nature of holiday spectacles. Perhaps so. Whatever the way I’m looking at things, I’d recommend the experience I had to anyone. Being around dolphins is an experience not to be missed.

1 The stare

This blog arose out of an encounter I had with Fran. A woman stared at Fran for so long I think she mistook it for a life drawing class. This set me thinking about similar encounters we had both experienced and the impact they could have. I hope it proves thought provoking.

Have you ever felt someone looking at you out of the corner of your eye? Forensically they survey you from head to toe, as if struck by the mystery and novelty of what they see. On occasion, they attempt to do so more subtly, quickly glancing up from what they are doing, only to look away and glance back again, a second glimpse to confirm what they have seen.
Imagine it happening every day. Imagine it happening ten times a day. This becomes second nature. The choice of yours then becomes how to react. Do you acknowledge it? Do you ignore it? Do you smile? Do you perhaps strike up a conversation?

Each time you have to make an assessment. It even becomes part of your daily routine. Personally, I now almost accept that to notice difference in any form is part of human nature. The stares become second nature and in all but the most extreme cases, you move on. Over time a subconscious resistance to the stares build up and you manage your awareness of peripheral vision accordingly.

In a different context, each time we pass an accident on the motorway, the phenomenon of rubbernecking can take hold. Motorists slow to survey the scene on the opposing carriageway.Then, the traffic resumes and you continue on your journey. 

At other times though, the stares make an impact on the resistance you have. Like everyone you have a bad day and sometimes you crave annononity. Sometimes someone stares too much, and remarks just that little too loud and it is hurtful. This is especially the case on a night out. I am not drunk before I walk into the pub. 

One exception to this is children, those natural curiosity about the world causes them to ask questions. Innocently they ask what’s happened to you. Often, mortified, the parents usher their children away. 

Personally I think it is the children who have it right. The stares come from a desire to understand the difference they see. I’d rather people ask in the want to increase their understanding, than to not and still wonder. It is natural to want to know more.

In some instances it is different. Every day we have conversations with people who get to know us. That’s the real measure. However forensic the stare, there is no substitute for that.

I’ll try and resist the temptation to get too preachy here..but recent events show the importance of being able to connect with others and understand that which is different.

We can’t simply walk on by and get on with our lives, nor merely ban enquiry about that which may make us feel awkward or threatened (are you listening Mr Trump?)

It is time we moved beyond the stare (and well and truly kicked arbitrary bans into touch!).

The Paradox of being called inspirational 

I bet you thought that because I was on holiday you were safe from blogs for a bit. Far from it…my mind just finds other things to think about. Cuba is lovely and time in the heat reminds me of the value of rest!

Every so often Fran and I get told that we are inspirational. This is something I struggle with a bit. Fran is inspiring..a five time world champion..I get that..but for me I am less sure! I think that everyone is in their own way, it’s just that some ways are more prominent than others.

So the chap that called us inspirational was a great guy. He, his wife and daughter all worked in various ways within the learning disability sector in Canada. So it wasn’t a kind of patronising ‘inspirational’ which was good. This kind of inspirational, well meant as it is, is difficult. You smile and gently challenge, pointing out that we live independently and that is usually enough to make people think.

So why then is being called inspirational a paradox? For me it is because it shows how much work there is to be done whilst at the same time showing a version of what is possible.

The basis on which Fran and I are called inspirational is essentially down to the fact that we get on with life in that we:

-Both work: We’re frequently told by professionals and others that we are the only disabled people they see or know who have jobs. 

-Own our own accessible house: This is probably more down to the shortage of accessible housing than anything else! 

-Go on holidays by ourselves: Through careful research it is possible to find accessible places

So being called inspirational for these things, which I would argue are not particularly remarkable, makes me a bit sad. Shouldn’t everyone with an impairment be able to do these things? The fact that Fran and I are regarded as being exceptional for doing so shows the challenges disabled people can face. These challenges are arguably more profound and stark than ever before given the unprecedented social and personal political landscape we find ourselves in.

According to my mum (we’ve come on holiday with my parents as we’ve raved about our resort!) I under estimate how difficult my own life is. She gives the example of it taking 10 minutes to put my shoes on to illustrate this point! Maybe she makes a good one.

My standards are really high and that’s why being called inspirational fires me up. I want to keep making a difference so that I’m not regarded as inspirational any more. That’s the power that this slightly awkward and ill fitting label gives. 

So there is the paradox: Being inspirational is sad and a call to action all at the same time.  I maintain that everyone is inspirational in their own way. 

The form counselling I’m training in suggests that success is doing what we can with the resources we have. I’ll raise a mojito filled glass to that!

The US election and lessons to learn for UK politics 

I don’t normally blog about politics but it’s something I feel really passionate about and I’ve even toyed with the notion of trying to become an MP one day. Political policy has the capacity to directly shape every aspect of our lives which is why having good people in power matters.
While I’ve been in Las Vegas I’ve been struck by several things about the Anerican election and what it means for us. 

1. The need to have good candidates and choice: Quite how Trump especially has even been allowed to get here is beyond me. Politics is only as good as the quality and qualifications of those involved with it. If I were an American voter now I’d really feel as if I was between a rock and a hard place with my vote. Where is the good option.

2. Politics needs to connect and stop apathy winning: Much of what I’ve seen in the coverage has been meaninglessness for me. High on petty points scoring and short on substance. Politics needs to speak to all of us and provoke informed debate. I predict what we will see in voting is a continuation of low turnout, which is bad for everyone.

3. The need for a more inclusive approach: I’m struck by how incestious American politics appears to be. Bush or Clinton appears to mean you have a lifetime in politics and this needs to be shaken up. Likewise in the UK, it shouldn’t just be about Oxbridge educated, middle aged people with money. We need a range of views to make politics speak to everyone.

4. More solutions and less negativity: We live in challenging times. This means the need for solutions to our pressing problems is required more than ever before. Negative attack ads over here are so abundant and do nothing to offer the solutions we all need.

5. The importance of objective and informative media coverage: Watching media coverage over here I am so thankful for our broadcast media in the UK. The bias of the likes of Fox, and even CNN is astonishing. We need objective media coverage to highlight issues, ask questions and bring politics to life.

The closing days of the contest for the Whitehouse will be absorbing. The winner of the contest will impact us all in many ways. Make your choice with care America.

2 Reflections on experiences of America with an impairment 

This has to be one of the more surreal settings I’ve written a blog in. I’m sat in the middle of a noisy Las Vegas casino surrounded by sirens, bells and in a haze of smoke.

I’m conscious that I’ve had something of a blog draught of late. I’ve not felt moved to write about anything and only want to do so when I feel I’ve something of interest and (hopefully!) value to say. Thank you to those of you who have enquirered when my next blog will be.

The purpose of this blog is to reflect on my personal perspectives of America as a tourist. Over the past few years I’ve been fortunate to visit Vegas (twice), New York and Florida. So whilst this doesn’t claim to be a scientific study I’m confident that I have a range of experiences from which to draw.

The good: Being treated as a consumer and the impact this has

I think the American attitude I have encountered is ahead of the U.K. for one simple reason: Here I am treated as a consumer and services are easier to access as a result. The consequence of this is that life is a lot more accessible. Granted, as a tourist I may be more outgoing than on a day to day basis but it’s definitely easier to get about. So there is a positive social by product..I can do more and see more as a result.

It feels as if America has embraced the social model too. Buildings are adapted to allow access so that as a consumer I can get in and spend my money. Though it is a subjective thing it feels a bit easier to walk tall as a result. My money is as good as everyone else’s!

Though much has been written about the purchasing power of the ‘purple pound’ in the U.K. I think we lag behind. Fundamentally, I would argue that disabled people aren’t generally seen as consumers and marketed to in the way that other consumer groups are. Sport aside, disabled people tend to be discussed as passive recipients of state welfare rather than as active consumers. That can (but not always) filter it’s way though to social  and even political contexts as a consequence.
The bad: Insurance and healthcare

The consequence of being seen as a consumer has its negative side too. Insurance and healthcare is very much a product here and that has profound implications for someone with an impairment.

Getting insurance to travel to the states can be a mission. Every day life in the states would be impractical. I just couldn’t afford it. The health system appears to be very much a live issue in the election debates.

For the well documented pressures and shortcomings of the NHS in the hands of its political masters the principle of free healthcare to all at the point of need is a game changer and one we must retain.

I dread to think about the adoption of an insurance based model and its negative consequences in the uk. 

As with so many things, I hope we can retain the positives and learn from the attitude described above.

I had better go and find my long stuffering wife and go and embrace my consumer status some more!  

#filltheseats and why it matters

If you have read this blog for a while you’ll know that Rio has had a troubled build up to the Paralympics. It is right to highlight a much more positive development in the form of the #filltheseats campaign.

This campaign will help Brazilian children see the Paralympic Games. This is such a powerful thing. I’ll never forget taking my uncle to see Fran compete at Ponds Forge in Sheffield.

He had never seen any disability sport prior to that point. It’s a big cliche but he was inspired and moved by what he saw. Most importantly he also left the day with a greater understanding of what people could do despite their impairments. That day was 5 years ago now and is still talked about now.

This is why the #filltheseats campaign is so important. It will bring Paralympic sport and the awareness of disability that comes with it to thousands of children who will carry it with them for the rest of their lives.

#filltheseats has also been backed by a whole host of people including the International Paralympic Committee, Coldplay and Paralympic athletes across the globe.

You can find out more here. Please support this initiative however you can and tweet using #filltheseats. Thank you:)

Brazilian Vogue and Rio Paralympics: An insulting way to miss the point?

So you are the host country to host a sporting event. It’s not going great, ticket sales are down and the eyes of the world are on you. So you have to do something, right?

Hmm. Perhaps this was how the meeting that lay behind the Brazilian vogue photo shoot in question. To promote the Rio Paralympics, non disabled models were photoshopped to appear disabled

This has not gone down too well to say the least. I can see why. The Paralympics has arguably a broader significance than the Olympics in terms of promoting understanding of disability and the issues around it. The advert actually creates a barrier to that, obscuring disability, which isn’t something that can be merely airbrushed out.

A far more effective approach has been consistently taken by Channel 4 in the UK. Here the message has been about presenting athletes who achieve what they do, working with their bodies to achieve what they do in sport. This surely is a more powerful message.

It is troubling that a host country of the Paralympics can display such a lack of understanding of the meaning and spirit of the games just a few days away from the start of it.

An understanding of disability is help to be arrived at by a careful representation of it. Disabled people don’t have the luxury of choosing to be disabled. Every day brings challenges to negotiate that can’t be magicked away. The only solution comes in the form of hard work. 

This is where the Paralympics has its wider social value, and why it resonates so powerfully. The games also has a vital responsibility to represent the broad spectrum of impairments that people have. Again, the Brazilian Vogue advert falls down here. 

Some will argue that for the Paralympics, any publicity is good publicity. This may especially the case given the troubled build up to Rio and poor ticket sales. I would counter by saying in which other context would it be ok to sell a product by distortion?  Perhaps if a better plan was devised to promote the games from the outset, such desperate measures would not have been required.

Personally I think the whole episode is in danger of being a wider reflection of the games itself: A missed opportunity. It is good that the photo shoot has been highlighted and that we can have wider discussion around it. Every empty seat we will see in Rio though is representative of both a wider failure to execute a properly planned games and a chance to learn more about disability generally. The chance to see anyone being world class is an opportunity that should never be passed up.

One only hopes that Brazil does a better job in responding to Paralympians. Come the games themselves, there will be no airbrushed representations available, which is an entirely good thing.

Two teams and one missed opportunity: Team GB and Paralympics GB

Today the ‘I am Team GB’ day is making a big splash.  A national broadcaster here in the UK even switched off its channel for an hour as part of efforts to promote the day in an unprecidented move.  At one level, I think this is a good thing.  People are rightly being encouraged to come together to celebrate the incredible success of Team GB in Rio.

However, scratch beneath the surface and for me, it is a missed opportunity.  We have not one Team GB, we have two different groups.  Team GB compete at the Olympic Games and Paralympics GB compete at the Paralympics.  On one level, this is totally understandable, and even commercially desirable  Both Team GB and Paralympics GB have separate commercial relationships with sponsors which they can use to further their respective interests.  You might not know this, but even the lion for the Olympic and Paralympic team is different.

Besides the commercial reasons though, the waters become muddied.  People can’t understand the reasons behind the two different team names and it creates a barrier to understanding where they need not be one.  For me there is also the wider symbolic aspects of the difference.  It implies a division between disabled and non disabled people which is not helpful.  We are one nation and should have a united banner with which to celebrate the achievements of all of our athletes.

Days like today also highlight why the separate identities of the teams can be unhelpful.  The Paralympics GB team are in a critical phase of their preparations for Rio with 11 days to go to the start of the Rio Paralympics.  Just as with the combined events to celebrate the achievements of our athletes, was there no way in which the festivities of today could have been moved back a few days?

For now, we will continue to have two sporting teams competing under one flag.  It will fall to us to show that, despite the difference in name, there will be no difference in the magnificient level of support we can give to our athletes.  I hope that in future, a way forward can be found to give us one Great Britain team that we can take to our hearts as a nation.

Disability and growing up: A letter to my younger self

Picture yourself as a 16 year old.  What would you say to yourself?  What advice would you give?  That’s my task in this blog.  There is a bit of a back story here, as after reading my blog, the parent of a 16 year old got in touch with me.  I thought I’d use this as a positive opportunity to reach out, and hopefully do some good in the process.

Dear Chris,

I’m now writing this as someone who is, scarily, double your age.  I wanted to write this letter, not only to reassure you, but also to give you some gentle advice, which hopefully will be useful.  The big news is that you are going through a difficult time now, but being able to negotiate these years well will open up some really exciting opportunities for you.  It is a time where you get to take an increasing amount of responsibility for your actions and choices as you find your feet as an adult.  There is loads to learn too, which is both fine and to be expected.  We never stop learning!  There is so much I want to say to you but I have limited myself to just 5, so that the key things stand out.

  1. Be yourself and accept who you are

You may think this is a really obvious one but it lies at the heart of everything.  You know by now that you are who you are and that there are things that you can’t change.  The only way is to accept those things and make the best of them.  Through this acceptance, you’ll be able to grow to be more comfortable in your own skin.  In terms of being yourself..totally vital.  Take the time to explore who you are and where you want to be.  You have lots of opportunity to do that now, and working these things out, though a little scary, will help you make good choices later.  Likewise, this will help you to stop being someone you are not, which is always a waste of time and never a good move.

  1. Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness

So we both well know by now that you are stubborn. Good, to a point at least. This stubbornness gives you determination, resilience and will help you to prove people wrong.  However, there comes a point when you are cutting your nose off to spite your face.  In these situations, asking for help in order to maximise what you can do is a real strength and not a weakness.  Have the courage and strength to speak up (especially when it feels scary to ask for help – that’s probably when you will most need it!) and you’ll be amazed how further it gets you.  Everyone needs help from time to time.

  1. Don’t beat yourself up

This may be the hardest.  Thing is, that deep down, there is an amazing person within you.  You probably won’t grasp just how much potential you have and how many possibilities there are.  There will be this nagging voice in your head though that doubts this, which constantly beats yourself up as never good enough.  Suppress that voice and believe.  Give yourself credit for the strides forward you make (however small they might seem.)  By being good to yourself, you’ll give yourself the most chance of letting your best self emerge.

  1. Comparing yourself to others is a waste of time

This one is really tricky too, but I promise you that by stopping comparisons with others, you’ll save so much time.  Go and look in the mirror..go on..:)  Do you see that person looking back at you?  That is the person you have to compare yourself to..you and you alone.  That is the person who will have to live with the direct consequences of the choices you make.  Everyone has to find a path that they are comfortable with and has their own things that shape that.  Don’t worry about the comparisons*.

(* – that doesn’t mean to say you can’t learn from  others.  On the contrary, you’ll learn from everyone you meet.  Keep the good points and discard the bad!)

  1. Treasure those closest to you

There are people around you that love, care and support you and will do so no matter what.  This is the most precious and valuable thing you’ll have.  They will be impacted by the choices you make, so keep them in mind too as you make them.  Above all, show them that love back.  They might not always be around forever, so make the most of every bit of time you have together.  Especially keep the ones close who will challenge you.  That challenge will keep you honest and help you to keep making good choices.  The people who challenge you constructively are often also the ones who respect you the most, so remember that this comes from a really good place.

I hope this letter is useful Chris.  You are going to have some really exciting times ahead.  Keep making good choices, working hard and the above advice in mind, and all promises to be well!

All the best,

 

Chris

 

 

2 Why talking about disability is essential: Freeing my ‘imprisoned’ self

When I am blogging, I have three simple rules.  The first is that I must write the blog in 30 minutes.  Second, that the blog must be no longer than 500 words and third that I must be making a clear point.

I fear that in this post, I may break the first two of these rules, so apologies in advance dear reader (blame my past as a law student and criminologist – I spent years studying how rules are broken!)  For the avoidance of doubt, my clear point is this: that is it ok to talk about disability.  This was partly what was behind the very title of this site…I wanted to ‘speak out’ and finally had the means to do so.

This wasn’t always the case though.  For years, I kept my disability in an invisible (yet tangible) prison.  It was there, and I could see it, but I didn’t know quite how to talk about it.  I’ve done some reading about this lately and in his earlier work, academic Tom Shakespeare makes a reference to ‘coming out’ in terms of disability, and from what I do know, there are parallels.

For me though there were two big turning points.  A first was going to school.  I’ve spoken a lot about education and inclusion in the past, and when I do, I say that it was really down to me to talk about my impairment and how it impacted on me. If I did not, I couldn’t help other people understand it and the impact it had.

As I got older though, I started to build a few walls around talking about it.  Ironically in some ways I became really reluctant to talk about my impairment and felt really awkward about it, more so than other people in some ways.  Fortunately in some ways, as I got older in school and more familiar (some would say stubborn!) in my surroundings, I just became increasingly focused on school results, girls and other typical teenage pursuits.  I moved away from anything to do with disability, fearing that involvement would lead me to being ‘pidgeon holed’ and I didn’t want that.

The imprisoned space got really big, all thoughts about disability and talking about it openly locked away.  Something for my private thoughts.

However, then came my second turning point.  Before I met Fran I hadn’t dated anyone who had an impairment.  She changed all that.  When we met (we both have cerebral palsy) it was as if there was a deep understanding that only someone who had the same lived experience could know about.  The nearest example I can think of to convey this is sport related.  Think of it like both following a football team.  You understand how much to support that club means and what it is all about.  Nothing else like that understanding ever really comes close.

My ‘imprisoned’ self was freed.  Even creating the blog and writing a post like this as recently as a couple of years ago would have been unthinkable.  Now, I want to use my own lived experience of disability in a positive way to help break down barriers and increase understanding.  This was why I created the blog, and that is why I would encourage everyone to talk about disability and learn more.

It is also true to say that for me, my disability isn’t the sum total of my identity, and nor should it be.  It is part of who I am.  Just as I have released my disability from prison, I won’t allow it to imprison me now. I’ll always try to maximise the things I can do, whilst acknowledging the limitations I have.  But then, who is limitless?  If you are, then I want to meet you!!

Prison isn’t ever a space for something as important for disability to be.  Keep it out of prison and let us all keep talking about how we can get along together.  Talking about disability is not in fact just ok as I said at the outset, but is essential.