Thursday, 22 October 2009

why we still need direct action!

I received an Email this morning from Zahid Abdullah, which brought tears of happiness to my eyes; the first tears I’ve shed for the right reasons in a very long time!

You might remember me blogging here some time ago, about my disgust at Pakistan’s refusal to grant ATM cards to visually impaired people! Their reasoning was simple (to them at least!), stating that blind people were more likely to lose the card, damage it, get mugged at cash points or have some one defraud their accounts because of their impairment (if any one knows precisely how you avoid being mugged at a cash point or being defrauded in Pakistan could they send their answers on a postcard please!). Any way, the blatant discrimination was enough to have disabled people in their masses protesting outside the banks in Islamabad and beyond, fighting, shouting; demanding justice. For them (and for me), the argument went much deeper then the refusal to issue ATM cards, the refusal assumed that a disabled person wouldn’t be financially independent any way, nor would they have a job, the ability to earn the money or go out and get it. They would have no need for the money even if they did have it (some one would naturally be funding their existence). They wouldn’t have a family to provide for, (because of course, disabled people can’t marry or have children or run a home or any thing of that sort). If, in the unlikely event a disabled person was doing any of the above, (I stress unlikely), he’d (and it will have to be a he because there is no chance of a female doing any of this), if, he could get out, some one would be managing the money for him, so they would be the one to access the ATM, not the disabled person himself!
It is these barriers taken together, that prevent disabled people in Pakistan (and beyond), living the lives that the non-disabled take for granted. Taking action is not easy; forming movements takes time, conviction, confidence and a profound passion for the equality you are fighting for, which has to be able to support others in their reluctance, and certainly not be afraid of getting locked up!

The direct action protests taking place in Pakistan are not new; they began way back in the sixties in the US, when ‘upias ‘the Union of the Physically Impaired against segregation, lead by Edd Roberts, first took to the streets. Upias, (perhaps not the most politically correct name in today’s climate), certainly shared the principals of the social model. I can’t forget how each hair on my body stood on end, when I first witnessed Edd and his colleagues staging week long sit-ins at government buildings, blocking off public thoroughfares with their wheelchairs and battling relentlessly for the most basic of human rights. Maria Eagle, former minister for disabled people, once described the struggle for disability equality as ‘the world’s last great imancipatory struggle, simply because of the magnitude of the attitudinal changes it will take to bring about true equality. Upias was closely followed by the ‘Pyjama protests in the UK; a group of people with learning difficulties, who were sick and tired of being put to bed at 8 PM, simply because of their impairments! Took to the pub with their PJs on (if only we could still do that!). They were not prepared to give in to what suited their “carers”, because they knew that “care” was not what they needed! Equality was what was sought; and the protests they and organisation’s like Upias undertook, have paid off in more ways than one. Sure we have struggles in this country, but who, as a disabled person, doesn’t thank God daily we were not around in the early sixties when forced sterilisation was common place!

Pakistan has many battles still to be one, but the ATM card saga is thankfully no longer on their list! Cards will now be issued to all visually impaired people; the next challenge shall of course be to find ATMs that are wheelchair accessible, and with speech facilities to aid visually impaired people!
But while Pakistan celebrates this success, a common friend of ours morns the fact that yet another course of infertility treatment failed and she will most certainly face a marriage break-up, or else a forced polygamist marriage against her will. Our friend is blind, married to a prominent figure within the TV industry. Despite theirs being a love marriage, and a match that merged perfectly on the grounds of wealth, class, status and faith (very important factors to consider within Pakistan with respect to marriage, especially among the elite!), never the less, her inability to produce a child on demand makes her apparently useless, ‘surplus to requirement! No doubt they think they already did her an immense favour by accepting her as a blind woman in to their family. My own future in-laws have expressed reluctance to us having children (because of the genetic implications on our children). I worry for my children too, but I worry about how society will view them, I don’t want them to be fighting the same heart wrenching battles I have had to, and I don’t want them to be victims of a family that isn’t educated enough to support them appropriately. On moments like that I am left feeling that the very concept of marriage ought to be forgotten by disabled people, because you won’t ever be yourself, and even if you are, there will always be one within the family who will discount you and you’ll be forced from then on in to have to fight your corner (behind this white stick and hijaab, I am but a humble ordinary woman like any one else!) (well, last time I checked!).
That said, it is way too easy to throw in the towel and cry hopelessness when the painful reality of prejudice and opposition comes knocking. Direct action, whether it be physical or mental resistance to this oppression, can, and does pay off! The eventual outcome may be a long time in coming, but small ripples really do make big waves! This concept is described beautiful in Colin Cameron’s short story, ‘the brick, (reproduced below). Excuse the language in portions of this, but I felt it important to share as it highlights beautifully the subtle yet invaluable changes direct action can bring about. It also illustrates society’s conditioning, which brings about a culture of oppression in the first place, and how working towards changing that has to be comprised of both social and physical elements; only then, will we truly progress towards lasting equality!

The Brick

by Colin Cameron
List of 13 items
Colin Cameron
Conventional Wisdom
The Brick
Dr Pillock
Colin Cameron
list end
cartoon af man sitting on a bench with a roll-up

Illustration of Alasdair by Colin Cameron

Alasdair sat on the metal bench outside the ancient town hall and smoked his roll-up. He watched all the people who passed him by: the harassed-looking
young mothers with their wilful, bawling toddlers; the exhausted-looking old ladies who filled their remaining time with regret for days gone; the dejected-looking
middle-aged men with whom life had been sparing in its distribution of half-decent opportunities; the bored-looking school kids who stuffed their spotty
faces with large portions from polystyrene containers.

Then his gaze became fixed upon a sight all too familiar and depressing in this windy seaside town. A support worker from one of the local residential homes
was out with one of her 'clients', a disabled man who sat in his wheelchair staring miserably into the distance as he waited for his 'carer' to finish
her conversation with her pal. He only wanted to get back inside, into the warmth where he might be able to regain some feeling in his toes.

“So, whit's doin' at the weekend?” Alasdair heard the support worker ask her friend.

“Nothin' much,” replied the friend. “Alan's asked me to go doon the club wi' him fer the darts, but I'm no sure. He's been seein' that Kelly behind ma back,
ye ken, Kelly from doon the road, the hoor.”

“Aye, she wis always a brazen little bitch,” agreed the support worker. “I've kent her since primary.”

“Well, I've got tae go,” said the friend. “I'm meetin' Paul in the bar, an' ye ken whit he's like if he's kept waitin'.”

“Paul!” laughed the support worker. “Ye're no' tellin' me ye're seein' Paul as well! I could tell ye a thing or two aboot Paul, so I could!”

“Aye, well, it'll have tae wait. I'll catch up wi' ye!” And the friend headed towards the dingy hotel across the street.

The support worker looked down unenthusiastically at the man in the wheelchair. She did not say anything to him, but resumed pushing, keeping an eye out
for more acquaintances to stop and blether with. She was - Alasdair considered - probably in her mid-twenties. She wore a pair of tight jeans that emphasised
the roundness of a large arse and, underneath a denim jacket, a pink T-shirt through which he could make out her nipples. Her mousy hair was tied in a
pony tail. Alasdair watched her departure with a feeling in which disgust mixed with anger.

An elderly lady sat down next to him, clutching her leather handbag closely. She followed Alasdair's gaze. “It must be awful to be like that,” she said.

“Mm,” agreed Alasdair. He felt pretty sure that they were not thinking about the same person. Having finished his roll-up, Alasdair got up. He smiled at
the elderly lady and crossed the road, wondering to himself how long it would be before the new greengrocer's would go out of business.

As he entered the newsagent's, the grey-haired woman behind the counter turned and regarded him with suspicion. Then she resumed her conversation with the
wee balding gent in an anorak about how the town had been going downhill since all these incomers had started arriving.

Alasdair searched the counter for a copy of the Herald but could not see one in its usual space. He decided to wait. After about three minutes, the grey-haired
woman said to the wee balding man, “Just a minute, Sandy...” and turned to Alasdair. “Were you wanting something?” she addressed him.

“Um,” faltered Alasdair, “I was wondering if you've got any Heralds left? Just… there don't seem to be any more copies on the counter…”

The grey-haired woman shook her head. “I'm sorry, son, I can't understand a word you're saying. What is it you're after?”

“Never mind,” said Alasdair, and left the shop. The grey-haired woman shrugged, and resumed her favourite topic.

At the bus stop outside the bar into which the support worker's pal had disappeared, there was only one other person waiting, another old lady. Alasdair
considered that this was likely to mean either one of two things. Either his bus had come early - which would have been unlikely but, with the perversity
of public transport, not as unlikely as to have been impossible - or there simply weren't very many people wanting this particular bus. For a Thursday
lunchtime, he reflected, this would have been unusual. He thought about the matter for a minute and then decided that he would ask.

“Excuse me, please,” he addressed the old lady. “Do you know if the bus has been?”

The old lady fixed him with a look of pity. “Whit a shame,” she said. “Oor Sadie's Billy was like you. He died, of course.” She reached into one of her
bulging shopping bags and produced a bar of chocolate. “Go on, son,” she said. “Take this.” Alasdair decided that he would walk.

As he progressed up the High Street his gaze was drawn, as it invariably was, to the sign above the charity shop window. “Caring for the Sick and Handicapped
of all ages”, he read. He felt the anger rise within him. It was time, he felt, to make a statement. At three o'clock the next morning the High Street
was still. It had been deserted by even the wind. Alasdair stood on the pavement in front of the charity shop window with the brick in his hand. During
the intervening hours he had given considerable thought to what this moment would be like.

Would he actually go ahead and do it? He had never really engaged in any acts of direct action like this before. Yes, he had been down to Newcastle, on
a number of occasions, to join in some of the demonstrations by disabled people campaigning against the continued provision of segregated education and
for affordable accessible homes; but he had always made sure to stay in the background on such occasions, so that he would not draw upon himself unwanted
attention from the police. He had his reasons.

Would he go ahead and do it? He knew that if he did, he would never be able to tell anyone around here that it had been him. Nobody would understand. His
point would be missed. It would go over their heads, and be dismissed as an act of stupid vandalism. He would be regarded as a crip with a chip. Nothing
would come of it and nothing would change. The support worker would continue to look with cold indifference through the people with whom she worked; the
elderly lady on the bench would continue to imagine that being impaired necessarily represented devastating personal tragedy; the grey haired woman in
the newsagent's would continue to be patronising and condescending; the old lady at the bus stop would continue to find comfort in her own heavy-laden
existence from the knowledge that there was always somebody worse off.

And yet, he recognised that in such an individual act of rebellion, in such an anarchic act of self-expression, there would be something artistic, something
of beauty created. Come the busyness of the High Street in a few hours' time, not one soul would be able to look at the charity shop front and see it in
the same way they had seen it before. They would look up and read the words “Caring for the Sick and Handicapped of all ages” and below they would see
the jagged edges of the desecrated window. Their hallowed, unexamined notion of 'care' would have been affronted. They would be appalled. It would have
to be boarded up.

However temporarily, then, he would have made a difference. The interpretation that others put upon his act was their own affair. Would he do it? After
this night, Alasdair always said that the shattering of glass was his favourite sound.

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