Listen to our Disability Hate Podcast where we talk to Jennie. She’s kindly written a blog post for us as well.
What a complicated thing disability hate is to define or understand. Why would one human being hate another due to a disability which creates challenges to them living a good life? What is it that drives this behaviour and the associated actions in individuals and how does this develop at scale to translate in to toxic organisational cultures?
These are all questions I was left pondering after taking part in a YDRF project which aims to raise awareness of disability hate and challenge it head on.
As a Local Area Coordinator (LAC), I know the power of human stories and the impact these can have in making change where it needs to happen in systems. Human stories highlight real issues which move conversations away from the abstract and to a place that is hard to turn away from, ignore or hide from in those common retreats behind policy and procedure.
I also understand how much it takes to share your story with others, how personal this is and how brave the people who speak out about their experiences are. I know because I am one of these people – an ‘expert by experience’ as well as a practitioner, which I find is common in the sector of health and social care, though this is often a sector which does not have a culture to support people to share these stories and blur those boundaries.
Through admiration for people I and the LAC team have been walking alongside who have shared their stories, and through a desire to level power imbalances and be the change I wanted to see, I was inspired to share my own story. I have done this in small stages as my story is one related to a long and complicated journey with highs and lows of fluctuating mental health. First I shared parts of my story linked to the local ‘Connecting our City project’ work to transform approaches and culture to mental health, through an online conference and a digital storytelling project. Most recently I have built on this through an invitation to share my thoughts with York Disability Rights Forum for a podcast series.
The issue of hate is complex, as is attempting to understand and address it. I experienced disability hate in the workplace but can’t speak too much about this as my silence was bought with a signed NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement) and a settlement. I am lucky enough to now work in a positive culture where I no longer feel the need to be silent about my long history and struggles with what, at times, has been a debilitating mental health condition. I now work in a Local Area Coordination (LAC) team, and under leadership which is committed to a set of values and principles which allows the freedom and honesty to be who you genuinely are.
My current manager at City of York Council is aware of the challenges I have faced with my mental health and this is not only accepted but valued as a strength which allows me a deep level of understanding and empathy others without this experience may not have. Our LAC values thread through everything we do, at all levels, in this way. We consider the people we walk alongside as ‘valuable not vulnerable’ in the spirit of a strength based focus. We also value members of the team in the same way through peer support and management.
In a recent meeting we met a challenge – ‘aren’t people valuable and vulnerable?’ – Well, yes, this is often true, of course, at a simple level. However, a deeper understanding of this phrase is that it emphasises we should focus on how valuable each person is, often not despite their vulnerabilities and experiences, but because of them. It also alludes to the power of strength based reframing, the power of refocusing on the qualities of each person and their value, rather than seeing them as defined by their vulnerabilities or disabilities.
A deficit based lens in services or organisations often sees people as passive recipients of care and support. Surely dismissing and limiting people in this way is a subtle form of disability hate? In my past experience in the workplace I was defined by a mental health diagnosis of Bi Polar which led my manager at the time to treat me completely differently, regard me less and consider me somewhat less capable. It was clear it was perceived as a weakness of mind….of course, I was the same person, I had the same abilities and the same level of competency to do my job, the same history and the same struggles I had always had. What was different was their framing of me after learning about my hidden disability. This was not ok and it caused me considerable harm. I still carry some of those dents to my confidence with me, but I also turned that harm in to something positive by challenging it and fighting it. Winning a little victory in that fight ignited a fire in me which drives me to seek more positive change around wider attitudes to mental health, especially where they become embedded and hidden in systems.
The crime of labelling someone as ‘vulnerable not valuable’ is often perpetrated silently, in an accepted way across organisational cultures. It happens subtly, covertly, and becomes accepted and unchallenged. I hope sharing my experience will inspire more people to kindle their own inner fires to challenge this and enable more people to step out of their hidden corners, tell their stories and be proud of who they are.