November marks Disability History Month and we should all be celebrating. It is a month long national event which showcases the diverse cultural history of disabled people while highlighting the horrific injustices and systematic exclusions the community have forever faced.
The first Disability History Month was held in 2010, launching a national organisation that “(created) a platform to focus on the history of our struggle for equality and human rights”. While the national campaign runs from 22 November until 22 December – covering the International Day of People with Disabilities (3 December) and International Human Rights Day (10 December) – at the university, we have a programme of events scheduled for this calendar month.
As the Students’ Association’s Disabled Students’ Officer, it is an exciting time. Working with societies and student groups who have shown enthusiasm and sensitivity has been reassuring, especially since disability activism isn’t sexy. Usually, no one wants to come to our parades or to put themselves on the line for us. Most people who have long-lasting medical conditions that affect their everyday lives don’t even want to identify with us even though, yes, that does make you disabled. Disability History Month gives us a chance to fight for our cause, to consolidate our efforts and look outside of the community to educate and to change perceptions.
Disabled people have always existed. Sometimes we have thrived. Sometimes we have been systematically murdered in our millions. But whether in destruction or glory, we are noteworthy. I deserve to be proud of my community. One which has helped us gain the rights we now have and will continue to fight for a better future. One which has contributed to the arts, science, literature, history, technology, politics and music. At the same time recognising that the real value is not your contributions but your character. One which accepted me when I came into my identity three years ago as an uninformed baby-crip who was still in the proverbial (medical supplies) closet.
I became ill at birth when luck or misfortune and thousands of years of genetic wonkiness conspired to fuck up the cartilage which is meant to sit between my bones. I became disabled much more recently though when I realised people were hurting me for my illness in ways my illness itself never could. I could not shake the expectations I and others had for myself. I entered the disabled community burdened by a heavy perfectionism that had attempted to smother the effects of my illness for years, uncomfortable with a new label, hurt by hurting and really, really scared.
A few years later, ‘disabled’ makes me feel light and proud and in control of my body. I am no longer scared to call myself what I am. I can only thank others in the disabled community for that. They have shown me the ridiculousness of social expectations and attitudes, have comforted me in times of hardship and abuse, and have taught me more than I knew there was to learn. Disability History Month is important as a time to celebrate those people who have done so much for our community in strengthening it and fighting for it. In the buzz of external injustices, it can be difficult to take time to focus on the movement’s internal kindness but it’s needed. Disabled people are strong and tough and tender and welcoming, and it is them that this history month is for.
But sunshine and rainbows come from inside the disability community, not from outwith its safety. If you’re an able-bodied student reading this, you have no idea what it’s like to be a disabled student at this university, or a disabled person more generally. Institutionally and politically it is hard, that’s a given. The strain socially and within relationships, it is more so. Some of my kindest, dearest, most (performatively) ‘woke’ friends have left me behind when we’re walking, huffed when I’ve cancelled plans at the last minute, showed me blatantly ableist memes and suggested, constantly, that I come to yoga with them. Disability History Month should remind you that if you are not recognising your prejudices and actively working on being anti-ableist, then there is something seriously wrong.
It is exhausting for marginalised groups to constantly have to educate society’s powerful but with Disability History Month we are offering you this chance to explore and connect with the issues that most affect our community. If you decide not to take that opportunity, reflect as to why. Disabled people are not listened to 11 out of 12 months of the year, the least you could do is give us this one
If this sounds like I’m being confrontational. It’s because I am. I won’t get into specifics here but I wanted “fuck your ableism” to be a central slogan for my Disabled Students’ Campaign for Disability History Month. It’s a phrase that has been used as a rallying cry by disabled folk in internet circles for some time now and reflects the message that disabled people aren’t going to accept or justify or roll-over in the face of oppression. If you’re being ableist then, quite rightly, fuck you. The word ‘confrontational’ is the one that stood out when I was told including this phrase in the campaign wouldn’t be possible.
I’m confrontational because I’m angry. With Disability History Month we are not asking you to build ramps when stairs stop us from entering buildings. To ensure medicine shortages do not kill us after Brexit. To prevent disabled women from being twice as likely to experience gender-based violence than able-bodied women. To stop the Conservative government’s austerity policies from killing thousands upon thousands of people each year by stripping away our benefits and our carers. We just want you to listen to us and understand that the world is disproportionately and violently stacked against us.
Disabled people will engage with Disability History Month because every day we live it, we feel it and we feel its effects. To them, I hope this month is as accessible and radical and for you as I hope it is. If you are able-bodied, however, I cannot force you to engage with our events and workshops and showcases no matter how truly excited I am for them. But I do hope you listen to the disabled people who are screaming at you to care. I hope you recognise our work and our stories. And I hope to see you around.
To find out more about the programme of events, please visit https://www.eusa.ed.ac.uk/yourvoice/representation/liberation/disabledstudents/disabilityhistorymonth/ or follow @edinburghdisabledstudents on Instagram.
Image: Buk via HRConnect