I was invited to speak the opening session at the Fawcett Society’s Spirit of Women Changemakers conference on 12 November.This is the speech I gave.
First of all, I have to say I’m not at all comfortable in talking about being a changemaker…for me, my journey as a campaigner is a long process helped and shaped by many other people along the way.
As a disabled activist,I started my journey in the US I was inspired by the grassroot activists in Austin, Texas, who often frequent the Capitol there. I came back to the UK to work at Coventry University but very quickly realised that I was more needed as a disability campaigner than a database/ relationship manager. In 2010, I was one of the co-founders of DPAC and went on my first march on 3rd Oct to protest against the coalition government’s spending review. We were marching with trade unions as well then and I found myself speaking /sharing on platforms with leaders of trade unions as well as other campaigners. I remember saying on an interview with the Guardian that we were going back to something like the Victorian age and people said I was scaremongering then.
At about the same time, I was invited to speak on violence against disabled women by the Million Women March at Trafalgar Square with my great friend, Michelle Daley. We both realised that there was a huge gap where disabled women was concerned on VAW and domestic violence, disabled women are twice more likely to be victims. Disabled people Organisations are gender neutral and women organisations do not deal with disability generally. Disabled women are marginalised and their issues are essentially invisible. We get a double dose of discrimination and stereotyping ..and triple dose as disabled women of colour. So we founded Sisters of Frida with other disabled women, we had a meeting over tea near Euston station . But we took a long time deciding on a name. I suggested Sisters of Frida because of the inspiration of Frida Kahlo who was an incredible artist whose work featured her pain and disability but she was more than that, she was creative, she was an activist, a feminist, a lover, bisexual vibrant woman of colour. We wanted a sisterhood that encompass all that, intersectional and inclusive.
So I don’t think I set myself off to be a campaigner or activist or a change maker. In 2012, I was a torchbearer, I think I see myself more in that role, carrying on where previous campaigners have set a trail. I often say I am a coordinator, I coordinate people who have the skills and set venues and do a lot of the back end work. It means a lot of networking and going to a lot of meetings – for example SOF had 4 workshops on disability and sexuality recently which were brilliant, we had a pilot event first and mostly disabled women just told us what they needed was a safe space to talk to other disabled women. No other such space exist. So we needed some funding to pay for the venue, access stuff like BSL and I pitched it to the RSA after a feminist funder turned us down and luckily the RSA agreed. For me, the great motivator is being able to fill that type of gap. And that had a great intersectionality element in it because it was disabled women of faith, LGBT and women of colour, we shared our experiences and stories.
It might seem trivial to focus on this among all the welfare reform changes that is happening but disabled women are seen to be asexual and there are a lot of mis understandings and that is a fundamental sense of selfhood, of being a woman which is important in having self confidence.
We were also involved with the UK working group, part of WRC , we went to Geneva for the last UK cedaw examination, in 2013 we were able to put in some recommendations for disabled women and this year we went to CSW (Commission on the Status of Women) in NYC to talk about the devastating cuts by the UK government on disabled people. The UK govt has been found to have gravely violated the Rights of disabled people by the UN Committee by its austerity measures. It’s not easy to be a disabled campaigner – there are some serious barriers: lack of access, being left behind in the public space as a result of discrimination, the lack of funding, energy and time. Disablism/ ablism is rampant. The starting point is often just to insist for our right to be there, and often that fight can be so exhausting you re left with no energy for the event itself. I think being a disabled campaigner means you need some self care too and prioritise – hence things I do can take longer to come to fruition or take the back burner. We have to balance what we do juggling work, family and energy levels. Maybe the role of the change maker is this case is to rethink and give voice for those women many of whom are struggling by having their independent living threatened by savage cuts to their care packages, their access to work support, their benefits slashed, their motability vehicles being taken away. Some of them are made homeless by things like the bedroom tax, if they face domestic violence perpetrated by their carers, they are not believed and oftentimes, they have no where to go. A few of them have committed suicide. And there will be more, people want legislation to allow assisted suicide. Disability hate crime has gone up and we are seen to be burdens for feminists, as unpaid care work they have to shoulder.
But disabled women are at the forefront of the present disability movement, and I would like to pay tribute to Debbie Jolly, a co founder of DPAC and fundamental in campaigning for the Rights of disabled people, who died this week.