Overcoming barriers by taking a positive attitude towards disability
This new series of Our Voices starts with focusing on Clare, a woman who has taken a positive attitude towards disability. Clare was born with a neuromuscular condition which meant that she required a lot of support as a child. She was, however, born into a loving family who did not view her condition as simply being an inconvenience.
A playful upbringing
Clare grew up with two brothers and a sister and the siblings had something of a playful relationship.
“They used to hide me in the house. Fold me up into cupboards, or drawers, or wardrobes. And when my mum wasn’t looking, hide me, so my mum will go around the house looking for me and not be able to find me… it was all a game between us.”
Clare also describes how her siblings ensured that she was able to partake in fun, physical activities despite her neuromuscular condition.
“They used to put me on a bobsleigh, and hold on to me so that I could be out in the snow like everybody else, or put me on a bouncy castle, because I can’t actually move myself. Everyone would bounce around me, so that I would bounce. They would always find innovative ways of actually making me part of what was going on.”
A positive attitude towards disability
The way that Clare’s siblings so completely involved her in their activities was no doubt influenced by the attitude of their mother. Even though Clare had a potentially life-limiting disability, Clare’s mother insisted that Clare was no different to anyone else and that she should be treated in the same way as her brothers and sister. This was Clare’s first exposure to a positive attitude towards disability.
One example of this equal treatment was that Clare was given chores to do around the house. She was also told from a young age that she was going to work. “She was always very determined. And I think that’s where I get my determination from as well.”
Unfortunately, not everyone had a positive attitude toward disability. Right from when she was born, her neuromuscular condition was diagnosed as being life-limiting. In fact, Clare’s mother was told that her child would not live beyond 18 months. When Clare began to go to school, the attitudes towards her disability were particularly negative.
Due to the lack of opportunities for disabled people at the time, it was deemed appropriate for her to focus only on arts and crafts. Clare reacted to this with inner derision. “ I was laughing, because I was thinking, I’m not gonna do that. I don’t know what she’s on about, she doesn’t know me.”
Deprived of a voice
But the negative attitudes toward disability continued to be expressed at school. In the mid-’80s, when Clare was 11 years old, a meeting was held between the headteacher and her parents. Clare was present but was not invited to speak. Clare’s parents were told that there was no point in their daughter pursuing any academic or vocational qualifications as there would be no space for her in the workplace. Instead, the headteacher said it would be better for Clare to be kept busy as a space was found for her in residential care.
In spite of not being invited to participate, Clare had strong feelings about what was being said. The meeting was taking place in the room which was used to deliver typing classes.
As Clare looked around and saw all the typewriters surrounding her, she thought “I’d love to have a go at typing.” However, Clare was not given a single opportunity to express her perceptions or wishes regarding her own future.
An inspirational visit from persons with disabilities
Although Clare describes feeling “bleak” about the nature of the meeting, she knew she could always rely on the support of her mother. At the age of 13, she was also inspired by a school visit from a man and a woman who were in wheelchairs.
They told the story of how they had both been placed in residential care. In care, they had met each other and fallen in love. They then decided that they wanted to set up a home by themselves and had had to fight the system in order to achieve this. They had won and were now living independently.
“That just changed my life for me, because I actually thought there’s another alternative.”
Clare was at a Special Education School at the time and she was used to being spoken to by professionals and medical people. But very seldom would persons with disabilities be invited to speak. Seeing that these two people had been able to live independently gave Clare hope for her own future.
Entering the world of work
Rejecting the advice of her ex-headteacher, Clare went to college and did work experience at her local council. At the age of 18, she interviewed for a job at the local electricity board. The interview was scheduled to last 20 minutes. About 1 and a half hours later, Clare emerged from the building knowing that she would be offered the job. Sure enough, she was and she became one of the few disabled people to overcome the barriers to participation.
Clare describes how she is still in contact with a number of the people she worked with at the electricity board. They tell her how she has helped to create a positive attitude towards disability simply through her example.
Working with the Shaw Trust
Clare now works at the Shaw Trust, a charitable organisation. They support people who have complex needs to get into the workplace. She began as a development officer before beginning to work on the Disability Power 100, a list which the Shaw Trust puts together to help foster a positive attitude towards disability.
Clare describes the list as “about profiling, and telling the stories, shining a light on disabled people that are influential in all different sectors. Through their successes, they are opening doors for other young disabled people. Especially those who are extremely talented, to be able to fulfil their ambitions and their aspirations for the future.”
Clare has herself been described as an inspiration. She doesn’t like the low expectations that are often placed on people with disabilities.
However “if you’re an inspiration to make people change, and to change their attitudes, to change their thoughts about disability…. I’m okay with that. Because it makes me feel that I’ve done good. I’ve done well for other people.”