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A Magazine for Sheffield

From the man who followed me home to the men organising for change, the status quo is killing us

A letter to the lefty men who are still doing it wrong.

A composite of four images. One has a man wearing a mask with a placard that says "Disabled lives not for profit". One has a demo with a placard that reads "fight today for a better tomorrow". One has a man with a sign that says "Nothing about us without us". And one has an image of a woman wearing boxing gloves.

Disability rights

Images by Matt Hrkac, Cliff Booth, Markus Spiske and Disabled And Here, composite by Philippa Willitts

I told a colleague the other day that strangers call me a scrounger on about one third of my trips to Tesco*. It was only when he looked really shocked that I remembered that, actually, that is shocking.

Or it should be. But it’s something I first wrote about in 2016 and it’s only increased since then. It’s normal enough that I wear headphones to avoid hearing it.

The man who followed me home shouting, “Fucking DLA stick!” for the length of my street – accusing me of using a mobility aid to falsely claim benefits – was definitely more intimidating, but even then, still not actually that shocking. I reported it as a disability hate crime but the police didn’t call me back.

The man following me home is more serious than the randos in the supermarket, but the experiences exist on the same continuum. It’s the same issue.

The world has started to understand that we have to tackle sexualised street harassment of women, because that’s part of a bigger picture that enables rape culture to thrive and keeps women self-conscious, controlled and burned out.

But despite feminists having told men this for decades, the men had the loudest voices and are now treating it like a relatively new idea. For people marginalised in other ways, equivalent connections have barely been noticed. As white people, we misjudge the significance of racist microaggressions. Non-disabled people don’t get the consequences of people being continually excluded. Cis folks don’t acknowledge the relentlessness of anti-trans campaigners.

Like with street harassment, those of us experiencing other kinds of hate know that one apparently small issue is part of a much larger whole. But those who get to be heard don’t care enough yet.

What’s the big deal?

If there’s an inaccessible building in town, it’s not necessarily a huge issue in isolation (unless you want to work there, live there, visit your friend there, drink there, or shop there…). But when we don’t tackle that, and then the council makes a whole street inaccessible to many, we don’t take action on that either. When the next step is to make most of the city centre inaccessible to me and many others, it’s easier to give up fighting to access the space I’ve loved and wandered for decades. Because nobody seems to care anyway.

And with that rage, we ripped a hole in the status quo

Judy Heumann
A painting on a wall of a woman with teal hair and cape, holding two swords.

Street art

@markheybo

It’s about more than not getting in

It’s not just about where disabled people can’t go. When places are inaccessible, we don’t have a presence in them. When we don’t have a presence, we don’t have a voice.

So plans are made and ideas are concocted, but they are the same ideas as they always were, because the people who couldn’t get in before still can’t get in. The people in the room think the conversations taking place are radical, but they are not radical – they can't be – even when they’re dressed up to look like they are.

They won’t create useful change. It’s just rearranging the furniture while putting our fingers in our collective ears to ignore the ‘difficult’ people challenging the racism, the disablism, the transphobia, the misogyny and all the rest.

Those with the loudest voices – who are still men, white people, cishet, non-disabled, middle-class folks – have the ultimate say. They think they’re getting it right already, and their complacency is crushing the rest of us.

In the 90s, feminist campaigning was put to one side by men, who told us that once they’d got their thing done, they’d fight for us. White women have said the same to women of colour. Non-disabled people say it to disabled people. Cishet people say it to queer people. Middle-class people say it to those on the verge of homelessness.

The left is complacent. And that is dangerous.

It’s why the leadership of the ostensibly left-wing Labour party is so boringly predictable. It’s why pro-cycling initiatives exclude a lot of users of adaptive bikes. It’s why I firmly believe that the left’s #MeToo reckoning is yet to come. It’s why some people’s left-wing hero said that fucking a woman in her sleep is merely “bad manners” if you’ve slept with her before. It’s why we still see so many all-white, all-male panels. It’s all part of the same picture.

The same fight

When disabled people challenge our exclusion, we’re reminded of groups’ small budgets, or we’re told we’re asking for too much. We see the eye rolls and hear the change in tone of voice. We know you think we’re a pain in the arse, not a crucial part of the conversation. A tick box, at best.

This is exhausting. So we shut up. Then we feel like we’re compromising everything we believe in, so we start speaking again. Then being ignored gets too painful, so we shut back up.

It might feel like we don’t have the time or the energy to care about racist attacks; men approaching strangers to comment on their breasts; the flasher in the underpass; residents making objections – in some numbers – at a house having ramps installed; trans folks facing so much unprovoked fury that they daren’t leave the house; survivors avoiding yet another festival; disabled people being twice as likely to be sexually assaulted; conversion therapy in this city we love; hate crimes rising and rising; and me just really missing going to the Peace Gardens. Especially when there is a climate crisis and genocide happening before our eyes.

But if we don’t see that it’s all the same fight, we’re doing it wrong. If we try to change systems without challenging the systems that oppress us, we’re not actually changing anything at all.

*This is not specific to Tesco, that’s just where I usually do my shopping. Independent shops tend to be inaccessible, ironically.

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