With Disability Awareness Week at Queen Mary (QM) beginning today, the 7th of December, and lasting until the 13th of December, now is an excellent time to shine a spotlight on all those fantastic and barrier-breaking disabled individuals, who don’t just make QM better, but the world as a whole.
With 21.4% of the UK population living with a disability, that is 3.6% shy of a quarter, you would think that we might see a little more overt representation, though I acknowledge not all disabilities are visible. For this reason, Queen Mary, and we humble folks at CUB, would love to celebrate our disabled colleagues and comrades!
When it comes to people who excel at life, not in spite of their disabilities – but because they take something that society perceives to be detrimental and turn it to their advantage, QM Alumni Emily Yates is the quintessential example. Emily is a wheelchair user, whose Alumni profile you can check out here. At a glance, however, Emily is an Accessibility Consultant, Journalist and PhD candidate (at the University of York). She has been part of many commendable initiatives including, but not limited to, assessing and educating on inclusion at the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic games, at the behest of the British Consulate no less; fronting several documentaries for BBC Three and giving a TEDx talk on sexual expression amongst the disabled community (if you don’t know about the undermentioned phenomenon of devoteeism, I’d definitely give it a watch). Her work was recognised in Shaw Trust’s Power 100, an annual publication containing the 100 most influential disabled people in the UK, and for good reason. So, we sat down with Emily to ask her some questions, we hope you enjoy:
Q: I was very happy that you said you enjoy Foucault, as I also like him, though I don’t always agree with him. As I’m sure you know, he theorised that illnesses and disabilities were culturally relative, that the degree to which something affects you is dependent on the cultural stigma and approach to the condition. As someone with a learning disability myself, I find this to be a very interesting concept. I was wondering what you make of it?
A: I think this is true to a certain extent. As a wheelchair user, a positive access experience for me of course relies on good physical access, be that step-free access or items at a lowered height, for example. But our experiences as disabled people very much rely on what I’d class as ‘social access’ too. So, the way in which we are perceived or treated by others, or the assumptions – positive or negative – that are made of us, our impairments, and our ability to contribute to society. And I do think that there’s a ‘hierarchy’ in terms of disability (although I wish there wasn’t!) This hierarchy can be based on how you communicate as a deaf or disabled person, the equipment that you use to navigate your environment, or the amount of assistance you require from others. And, sadly, where an individual places on these scales can affect how they are considered by wider society, and in turn could absolutely relate to the way they feel about their disabled bodies and identities.
Q: Your profile also mentions that you have done admirable work with SIFE (who are now called Enactus). During your time working with this organisation, did you find that your disability offered you any unique opportunities or advantages, seen or unseen?
A: I haven’t actually considered this before, so great question! I think it might have, if only in terms of empathy. We worked on various social, economic and environmental projects in the local area, from running English workshops for women who had previously been unable to attend lessons due to childcare or other duties, to holding mock interview sessions for young people who were keen to build their confidence and comfort surrounding the job application process. There have been many times when I’ve had to learn something in a particular, or different, way because I’m a wheelchair user (navigating the bus network, for example, when tube stations weren’t accessible was a huge learning curve when I arrived in London!) So I was aware of the empathy we needed to have when delivering these projects and what a difference that could make to someone’s experience.
Q: Did your adventures abroad, to Australia and Africa, teach you any things about yourself? If they did, do you think everyone should make an effort to travel, even if the obstacles are high?
A: I’m always amazed when I travel at how resilient the human body and mind is, and how resourceful we can be. I’ve been on the other side of the world with a broken wheelchair before, and unable to speak the language of the country that I’m in, but have always been beautifully supported and assisted by local people and have found a way to express my requirements… eventually! I lived in Rio de Janeiro for two years and am still in awe of the sense of community there. Rio is not the most accessible place I’ve been to, by a long shot, but I only had to be struggling to cross a road or get up a kerb for 10 seconds before someone offered to help me. Sometimes the reserved and polite British mentality isn’t the most helpful when you’re wanting quick and effective assistance!
Travelling has also made me so aware of my privilege – to be able to travel independently and experience the world around me like I do. That’s not always possible for many others, for a whole host of reasons, and whether they’re disabled or not. I think a lot of disabled people lack the confidence to travel, too, which is totally understandable when there are so many variable factors associated with it, from equipment loss or damage to lack of access at the destination or even requiring medical care due to condition worsening. But, the rewards of travelling are endless, and there is a growing amount of information out there regarding tried and tested accessible venue and activity recommendations, so this should help to build that much needed confidence and comfort.
Q: You have an impressive plethora of graduate jobs. Many of these roles involved representing the disabled community. Do you have any advice for disabled graduates looking to represent the disabled community?
A: First and foremost, understand that your lived experience as a disabled person is your power – and use it! No-one will explain the way you live and experience the environment around you as authentically as you can, and that’s a true gift. So, whether you wish to write about it, consult on access and inclusion for businesses, train organisations in disability awareness or deliver motivational speeches, there’s many things that can be done, a fair amount of money that can be made and, most importantly, many mindsets that can be changed.
Q: As a journalist, and as an English student, I was wondering if you could elaborate on the authenticity your disability provides to your writing? I find it, for want of a better term, extremely cool that you have taken this aspect of yourself, which society labels as a disability, and used it to enhance your writing.
A: Thanks! I’m a great believer that a better understanding of disability will ultimately come from further awareness and education surrounding it. And, if by writing about my lived experiences as a disabled person – whether I’m travelling or commenting on current affairs – I can help to build engaged empathy (rather than distanced pity or sympathy) around the disabled identity, then I’m really happy with that!
We would like to say a big thank you to Emily for taking the time to speak to us, and for elucidating what it means to appreciate, include and celebrate disability!