Saturday 14 July 2018

“Whites only”: would you go in?

There are two recent incidents which made me think. They are lessons learnt and they influence my way of evaluating situations and making professional and personal decisions.

Last April, I attended the IETM plenary meeting in Porto, Portugal. There were different issues concerning access for people with mobility issues (wheelchair users, pregnant, obese), creating discomfort and some tension, such as conference rooms and WCs accessible only by stairs. So, when a disabled colleague told me that the closing party would be taking place at an inaccessible venue, I naturally told her that, if she couldn’t go, I wouldn’t go either. Was this enough, though?

Our British colleagues, both individual delegates with and without disabilities, as well as institutions, did not keep this to themselves. They used the social media to let everybody know that the venue for the closing party would not be accessible. They asked for action and solidarity and they invited everyone to attend an alternative closing party at an accessible venue (read the IETM statement that followed, which may also be a lesson for us at an institutional level).

Someone wrote at the time: “We won’t go if our disabled colleagues cannot go. Just like we wouldn’t know if our black colleagues could not go.” This was perhaps the most marking statement for me, among many others.

As recent incidents in Portugal have shown, we are far from solving an issue like racism, of course. Nevertheless, many more people today would feel upset and also ashamed to go into a place with a “Whites only” sign. If this is the case regarding black people, why do we still accept going into so many places with invisible “Able-bodied only” signs? Why - before organising an exhibition, performance, play, concert, conference or another kind of event - don’t we first make sure that all our colleagues, as well as family members, friends and also people we don’t know will have the opportunity to attend, should they wish to

Would this limit our choices? It would indeed, very much so. But it’s probably the least we can do in order to put an end to a vicious circle which involves us all: citizens without disabilities and special needs, citizens with disabilities and special needs, associations, public and private cultural organisations, architects, municipalities and state organisations. All of us who, for one reason or another (with one excuse or another), do not abide by the law or accept that the law is not implemented. Is access a disabled person’s problem only? Isn’t it everyone’s? Why do we silently comply with discrimination? And why when we act against it we also do it so silently?

In a recent debate organised by Acesso Cultura | Access Culture, regarding the non-implementation of good practices in cultural venues in Portugal, it became obvious that this is not just about the law and it is not just about one law, the 2006 accessibility law. It has to do with our constitution, with different laws and it has to do with our culture, our way of being. Different situations were identified during the debate in six different Portuguese cities (the summary in Portuguese), which may also be seen in association with the findings presented by Acesso Cultura | Access Culture in a report about the meetings it promoted with culture professionals all over Portugal in 2017 (read the report). I believe that, when consulting these documents, each one of us would easily identify his/her own responsibilities for the continuous discrimination against people with disabilities and special needs.

Photo taken from the Faecbook page of Mariana Seara.

There was a second incident recently that got me thinking. On 19 June, the Centre for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra organised a seminar on Disability and Self-determination: the Challenge of Independent Living (read about independent living). There were two special guests: Adolf Ratzka, Director of the Institute of Independent Living, and Kapka Panayotova, President of the European Network of Independent Living, both long-time activists in the struggle for independent living. According to one person who attended this meeting, two other guests, with political responsibilities in Portugal, briefly addressed the audience in the opening ceremony and then stated that they would not be able to stay. According to this one testimony I read about the incident, Kapka Panayotova went to the exit, grabbed the double-leaf door and told them that they could not leave; that this was too important and they would have to listen; that they would be arrogant if they left.

A second lesson regarding action, responsibility, solidarity. It doesn’t really matter who those two guests were. We all know that this is all too common in Portugal; that politicians and other people with responsibilities attend the opening ceremonies (because we ask them to, because we want them to, because we show them that we value their brief presence and banal statements), but rarely stay to listen and discuss. Real discussions take place in their absence, when they are the ones who have the power to make things happen (some things, for sure) and they should seek to be informed and part of the discussion among colleagues.

Should we continue in this segmented, and surely comfortable, practice of debating and acting, the necessary developments and improvements will take much longer to happen. Some things have already taken too long, they don’t make sense in 2018, they shouldn’t be considered acceptable or excusable. There is an urgent need for informed action, solidarity and a strong sense of responsibility, big or small; the responsibility each one of us has in not supporting, actively or passively, any kind of discrimination.

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