Disability History Month Blog: Disability and me – my journey
Here at NTU, we’re celebrating Disability History Month 2020 with a programme of activities that provide everyone in our community with an opportunity to come together to increase our understanding and show support for disability equality.
As part of this, we’re drawing upon the lived experience of our colleagues with disabilities in a series of blogs.
The first blog is written by Chris Keast, Principal Lecturer in Property Management and Development. In it, he discusses other peoples’ perceptions of what he’s capable of, his struggles with self-acceptance, the need for a level playing field and how far we’ve come since the Disability Discrimination Act became law 25 years ago.
Do you have any disabilities?
In response to this question, I usually answer “Yes, some I was born with and some which I have acquired along the way.”
Do I see myself as “disabled”? The simple answer is no I don’t, because I believe that represents a deficit model, instead I prefer to celebrate the positive contribution I make to society and other people’s lives.
I have a significant hearing loss, life limiting lung disease, a supressed immune system and significant mobility impairment. My mobility impairment came as the result of a significant fall from height in 2006, not as a result of a motorcycle accident, which many wrongly assume. It is strange why this should matter. Perhaps people think that young men injured riding motorcycles or crashing cars deserve to be left with life-changing disabilities, because when I explain the circumstances surrounding my mobility impairments, their attitudes change.
Up to my accident in 2006, I managed my disabilities and accepted the limitations they imposed on me. However, after my accident I believed that my life had changed forever. I was off work for five months, only four months after having started a new job with NTU as a Senior Lecturer. During my stay in hospital there was talk of amputating one of my legs which had been badly smashed in the fall, which was a terrifying prospect. It seemed that discussions went on around me rather than with me. I was also recovering from a spinal injury and significant head injury, living then, as I do now, on a terrifying cocktail of opioid pain killers and nerve blocking drugs. Once I was allowed home, I slept downstairs for five years until we moved into our new specially designed and adapted home. The real irony here is that as a Local Authority Surveyor I had, for many years, worked with clients specifying and supervising adaptations to allow them to stay in their own homes whilst managing their disabilities. Little did I appreciate that I would be designing my own home just a few short years later! To add further insult to injury, I had fallen off my own roof building an extension on our family home, even though one of my specialist teaching areas is construction health and safety!
After my accident I felt that the life I knew had been taken away from me, I felt a profound sense of loss, something not helped by the comments from people around me. I remember sitting in my wheelchair watching my children playing in the park and hearing other parents commenting on how sad it was for my children that their “Dad was a cripple”. I felt so useless and worthless. On another occasion a well-meaning member of the public asked my children if they liked being out with granddad, presumably because I had a mobility scooter to get about. Even my own Mother said one day, during a shopping trip to the supermarket, how sorry she was that my life had been ruined. My response was, “I have come to terms with my disability and you need to as well”. The language around disability is often so negative reinforcing again society’s deficit model of disability.
I made the very conscious decision not to mourn my loss any longer but to celebrate the things I could do. I became focussed on proving to myself that I could still do things, anything, whether it was making a cup of tea or going to a meeting and I often ended up on the floor, quite literally. I became heavily involved with different committees and organisations because I felt that by doing that at least I could contribute and be a worthwhile person, not the “cripple in the wheelchair” pitied by the parents in the park. My wife said only a few days ago that she lost me for about seven years whilst I proved to myself that I was a worthwhile person.
What have I learnt on my journey?
That is a good question. For me it is that I don’t need to prove who I am or what I can achieve, I see my mission in life as giving other people opportunity.
It is 25 years since The Disability Discrimination Act became law and 10 years since those principles were enshrined within the Equality Act, but how far have we really come as a society? I don’t need to be pitied or talked down to, you wouldn’t believe how often people ask the person with me, who they assume must obviously be my carer, “does he take sugar?"
I’m just the same as any other person, but what I do need is for you to understand that I might need you to change your views of disability. To understand that people with disabilities can achieve anything, we just need a level playing field. Ask yourself the question, how many people with disabilities sit on boards of governors, or boards of companies? Why are people with disabilities still underrepresented in every aspect of public and business life? Why can’t I have equal access to goods and services? Why don’t you sit down or crouch down to speak to me at eye level instead of looking down on me? Why don’t I get treated with respect?
The issue with unconscious bias
Unconscious bias remains a big issue for people with disabilities and stems from the very model that disability is about the things you can’t do, rather than celebrating the things you can do. Similarly, indirect and institutional discrimination are big issues to overcome and journeys that society must still go on.
Indeed, I seek to instil in my students the need to not just design for equality within the built environment, but to actively believe that ensuring it in every aspect of our public and private lives is the moral duty of us all. So often, particularly since the Grenfell tragedy, we hear the phrase that “the construction industry must realign its moral compass”. Ensuring equality and inclusion and celebrating diversity are cornerstones of that realignment process, we can’t continue to live in a society which leaves people behind. We should be ashamed when a community speaks out saying “they have no confidence in the enquiry, because the people doing it don’t look like them”. We must be representative of the communities we work with, if they are to entrust us with their wellbeing.
Attitudes are changing
I work for a progressive organisation which seeks to positively promote disability, and have recently been successful in being promoted to a management position. That doesn’t mean that I have not had to fight for equality along the way, but it shows that attitudes have and will continue to change. I am a founder member and past chair of the Disabled Employees Network and member of the school equality committee. I am also an active trade unionist supporting colleagues in challenging inequality and campaigning for fairness in the workplace.
In my professional life I am a Chartered Building Engineer, Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Building, Fellow of the Chartered Association of Building Engineers, Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, Member of the Institute of Leadership and Management and a Member of the International Council on Monuments and Sites. I serve as Co-Chair of the CIOB EDI Specialist Advisory Panel and have been a member and past chair of the Nottingham and East Midlands Regional Board for the CIOB since 2006. I am a member of the Education Panel for CABE and member of the Professional Review Panel.
As a community volunteer, I have been a school governor for 20 years, serving as chair for the last six years. I am also a founding director of a primary academy trust founded on the principles of equality and providing young people with life chances. In 2009, I formed a new Scout Group catering for all young people from the ages of six to 18, and now manage two Groups locally. I’m also a trustee of the District Scout Council and a member of the County Scout Council.
I have not let disability stand in my way and have the courage to challenge inequality wherever and whenever I see it. I will never give up on my overarching ethos of trying to ensure a fairer workplace and more equal society for all.
Visit our Disability History Month 2020 page to find out what we have lined up this month to celebrate the achievements of disabled people, and use this opportunity to develop your own disability awareness.
Disability History Month Blog: Disability and me – my journey
- Category: Current students; Staff