Despite the fact that the UK has taken to priding its self on its so-called culture, equality, freedom of speech, justice etc, the last week or so has shown me, (yet again!!), just how much “difference” defines our attitudes, choices and voluntary exclusions within Scotland today, and how on the surface we might claim to embrace difference rather than turn it out, to celebrate it rather than cast it off, in reality, the exact opposite is done!
The Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB), have just issued a press release promoting their latest venture: “non-sighted tours!”, a bit of a contradiction in terms maybe, but the idea here is that you are either blind folded, or given special (oops I used that word!), simulated spectacles to wear which apparently mimic the experience of those going through sight loss! Some of you, (probably those of you who are fully sighted), might be wondering what my problem is here! After all, isn’t this only going to increase/promote awareness and understanding in the longer term! …, may be, but while you contemplate its benefits, ask yourself why you don’t pile on the boot polish in order to experience the prejudice people of colour face, or why you don’t drag out your pink stockings and tart wear to experience the prejudice faced by those who opt for the drag look! Such things would provoke nothing less than a national outcry: “discrimination” they’d yell, but hey: who cares, its fine for “the blind!”.
Some people reading this might accuse me of having ‘a chip on my shoulder, and perhaps I do, and maybe the chip is responsible for the curiosity that seems to be surrounding me these days “Blind and Muslim? Huh?”, no kidding!! I’ve written about this before, but its getting worse! These days, I’m continually bombarded with requests from researchers, PHD students, anthropologists, social networking professionals, non-governmental change movements and journalists (to name just a few!). I’ve tried to pin point a particular aspect of little old me, that they would find so captivating! …, (I’m still looking!), but from the outset, it seems to be the full package: if they can’t fit you in to one box or another, exploring the choice not to homogenise is a project in its self: (Blind, Muslim, convert, shia, Urdu speaking, divorced, …, whats she all about!).
Curiosity can be beneficial too: while I might sound hostile, in truth I have no objection at all to any one asking questions! But it’s the nature of the questioning, and the motive behind it I have an issue with! Particularly when much of today’s questions come from those who know little, and choose to remain isolated: (a colleague today actually believed that a channel called ‘shia soldier TV existed after a comment I made), and, when asked if such things as ‘florescent hijaabs existed, to help Blind Muslim women when out at night, I retorted “no, we have a choice: glow-in-the-dark scarves, or hijaabs designed with LEDS built-in”, my colleague (bless her!) replied “really? How clever!! I’d love to see one!” I’ve taken to inventing these way-out, cynical responses as a way of breaking the monotony: sure the first few enquiries stir a smile or 2, but when the probing by the ignorant becomes a daily occurrence it starts to be more than a little tiresome! My point behind ranting about all this is that society in the UK encourages it for the most part: “difference” has become a business (I’ve worked for that business, and contributed to it significantly through-out my working life!). Diversity (as they call it), needs to be measured, quantified, put in a box, and in many cases, watered down to meet the needs of the white Anglo-Saxon protestant! (race equality training, LGBT training, equality training, gender equality training, disability equality training), …, to name but a few, though the list goes on, …, and on!
All of these courses are prepared, offered and taught to government officials, private sector staff tasked with preparing ‘equality duties in most cases, or those suckers who “just find diversity fascinating!” They are taught by people, all too willing to showcase their life: “see? I’m ONE of THEM, I’m disabled too”, who apparently see nothing of the blatant contradiction, and seem content to be a worthy freak show for the day (all in the name of the movement!).
I’ve been a disability Equality trainer for the past 3 years now, and while many have claimed to find my courses helpful, I think it has more to do with their own underlying attitudes: if they are open, inclusive and humanitarian in outlook, the need for disability Equality comes as no surprise for them: essentially, giving every one a fair crack of the whip is something they subscribe to already! There are those, for whom the training is nothing more than a policy exercise and a bit of elevator talk for when they return to work: least seen soonest mended! And finally, there are those who don’t get it, who did not get it and who never will get it, the “it”, being equality in general!
A suggestion was made to send my manager (you know, the problem manager), for a few sessions of equality training, to broaden his outlook! But, unless the training incorporated NLP or hypnotherapy in its delivery and style, it would be unlikely to make a lasting impact on some one with such deep routed and aggressive attitudes to others!
The issue of unnecessary emphasis on difference worsens when you hear those who (you think should no better), extorting fame, fortune and recognition out of the same: I’m not just talking about the medical/academic publications the subject generates, but there are now generations of bloggers, people on twitter, self made ambassadors and spokes people for the ‘difference society! Many of these are intercultural blogs: websites and experiences born out of a mixed race relationship etc, and some of them are highly enjoyable, reflective and amusing! But sadly, the majority still hang wearily between the patronising and the world of ‘white Western dilute in my view (how can you compare tinned fruit with the real thing!) (poor analogy but you get the point!).
This whole entry was in fact inspired by something I read on ‘gori girl’s blog, “the 10 questions every intercultural couple should ask before marriage”, (have we become so sterile about difference that we need questionnaires to assist us with analysing whether or not this “difference” would be compatible in our world of white comfort and privilege!). What shocked me, was that allot of the questions draw pretty close parallels with the stuff parents, teachers and professionals are taught about disability in the early stages: “don’t be afraid to talk about watching TV, looking out of the window, or other common sighted activities: blind people use this phraseology too and it is as common place for THEM, as it is for US”, in short (you might have a cane and a vacant stair but you are just the same as me!), and what they don’t say: (if I tell myself that often enough, I will, in all likelihood, start believing it!).
If you too are a part of this industry, or, if you are so far away from it that you still endorse its benefits, you may well think me bitter, unfair and twisted (or all of the above). While it is certainly difficult to quantify the long-term affects of such interventions, or indeed any intervention that requires lasting attitudinal change, a scan of the relevant research on the subject soon reveals that there is absolutely nothing to indicate that these approaches are working, or making any kind of a difference for those they are supposed to be helping/integrating! The reason: simple! They start from a reference point that is inherently unequal in nature: (you don’t fit in, therefore, we need to train people to deal with you).
When I first got acquainted with the disability movement in the US, I was shocked to learn that such training (conditioning), is not a common feature of the employment/development culture over there. Society simply addresses the barriers, thus kerbing (not eradicating of course!), but significantly limiting the possibility of blatant discrimination occurring! Moreover, when I lived and worked in Pakistan, (a country where all such concepts are alien), I didn’t feel the need for them, nor did I feel I was at any kind of a disadvantage for not having them. Sure I faced barriers that I do not face here, but nine times out of 10, those could be resolved through direct communication with line managers, members of the public, or by simply living your life and going about your business as a fully functioning Blind Muslim: by existing, the problems/barriers (which largely exist within the head of the other person), fail to be an issue any more!
Some of you might say: if we were all to take this approach, would we then need to abandon the dynamic disability movement we have today? Is the racial justice struggle over? is gender inequality a figment of the imagination? Answer: of course not! There are mountains to climb and battles to be one! That is sadly a reality which I doubt will change much in my lifetime! My points have more to do with the current work priorities these movements are forced to undertake these days: most of them centring on counteracting the cultural conditioning I spoke about above! Perhaps if the “training” and the “policies” were put to bed, (or at least toned down), the movement could empower disabled people (and non-disabled people), to get on with the business of living, working, existing, rather than justifying that very existence in the first place!
They claim that these very policies were written with the “marginalized” in mind, but in practise that couldn’t be further from the truth! If we were, only for a second, able to throw it all out, write our own history and determine our own futures, the very landscape of equality would change dramatically, might even fail to exist, which should be the ultimate aim of any so-called equality movement any way (disability, race etc). A leap in logic it may be, but the way forward for sure (only, those at the top may require related training on precisely how to let go), I’m told your own box is a pretty comfortable place to permanently reside J