British Council staff during disability training from the Mimi Institute

December 3rd, the world celebrates the International Day of Disabled People. 

As the UK’s principal cultural relations organisation the British Council is strongly committed to providing equal opportunity and embracing diversity, including for disabled people. 

Disabled people are part of the world community. Through the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities - which have also been ratified by the Government of Indonesia with Law no. 19/2011, the world is moving towards the equal rights of disabled persons to participate in regular community activities.

It is, Phil Friend, one of the authors of the book ‘Why Are You Pretending To Be Normal’?, who says "Being different is normal; being unique is normal because human beings are all individual and different."

Phil is a wheelchair user and who has been engaged by some of the UK’s major corporations and public sector organisations and has had a significant influence on how organisations manage disability in the workplace. 

Below you can find British Council interview with Phil Friend.

The Arrival and Impact of the Social Model of Disability

Thank you Phil for accepting our interview. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background? What is your favourite positive saying?

I contracted polio when I was three and as result use a wheelchair to get around. As a child I went to a number of special schools, as mainstream schools were not accessible to me.On leaving education I worked for short spells in the civil service and local government and then went to college and qualified as a Child Care Officer.

I was the principal of two residential settings for young people who needed support and supervision. When the institutions closed I decided to set up my own business exploring disability and employment. This came about because I met someone who asked me ‘why I was pretending to be normal?” the question both puzzled and intrigued me and so I decided to explore the world of disability.

My favourite positive saying is “I’m an asset not a problem”.

Congratulations on your book ‘why are you pretending to be normal’! What made you decide to write this book and how did you come up with the title?

Dave Rees and I have been running personal development courses for people with impairments and the feedback from those who have attended has been extremely positive. They talk about the real difference it has made to both their perception of themselves as disabled people and also the practical tools it gives them to deal with others.

We wanted other people who can’t come on a course to get a flavour of what the programme can provide but we realised that at our current rate it would take quite a few years to reach the same amount of people that we can with a book. People have often said to us that they have been inspired by the ideas we bring to the courses and that we should put them in a book. So that is what we did.

As mentioned earlier the title came about as a result of being asked ‘why are you pretending to be normal?’ I realised that I was minimising the fact that I had a disability and was trying just to fit in. The question got me thinking about the many disabled people that I had met who try to fit in with a world that doesn’t always take account of their needs. When we ask the question on the course it always provokes a discussion and we wanted the title of the book to grab the attention and intrigue people.

Neither of us can cure my impairment but we can both do something about my disability’. ‘I am only disabled if I let others disable me.’ (quotes from the book). If we are going to define the social model of disability, what would be your preferred definition?

The Social Model of Disability recognises that some people have impairments which affect how they function physically or mentally. But they are disabled by the physical and attitudinal barriers that exist in a society, which, excludes them because it does not take account of their needs. For example is the reason that I cannot get on a bus because I can’t walk or is it because the bus is not designed for people who use wheelchairs? I believe that the bus is the problem rather than my inability to walk.

‘My impairment is a hearing loss. But I’m only disabled when people turn away from me when they are talking or they cover their mouth with their hand so I can’t lip read.’ ‘Someone in a wheelchair is disabled because there isn’t a ramp to get into the building. Someone who is partially sighted is disabled because they are given a document with a print size that’s too small for them to read’. ‘it’s our own or society’s attitude that disables us.’ (quotes from the book). 

What can be done on the problems caused by disabling environments, barriers and cultures? Are polices to address those successful in Britain? What are the challenges?

I think, in the last thirty years, the UK has made real progress in removing or reducing some of the barriers that disabled people face. In part this has come about because of campaigns by disabled people themselves to have rights enshrined in law, the Disability Discrimination Act, now incorporated into the Equality and Human Rights Act is a good example. Revised building regulations are bringing about changes to the built environment and work based training programmes are helping to shift the attitudes of employers and employees.

The Paralympics held in London in 2012 showcased the talents of disabled people and helped to move public attitudes. Greater awareness and representation in the arts and the broadcast media are also helping to change attitudes.

People with physical or sensory impairments are seeing positive changes, however people with learning disabilities and mental health conditions still encounter very real challenges and there is still a long way to go before the barriers they face are completely removed.

The UK is a multicultural and multi faith country and we need to better understand the way in which disability is viewed and understood by different cultures. With better understanding we could provide more appropriate support and education to people from different backgrounds to ensure that disabled people regardless of their upbringing are treated fairly and can play a full part in the life of their community

What we want is not only a better understanding of the support we really need but also to be fully engaged in the decision-making processes whose outcomes benefit disabled and non-disabled people alike’. (quotes from the book).  What are your practical suggestions for organizational leaders in creating enabling working environment?

We have a slogan ‘nothing about us without us’ which means that disabled people should be involved in all conversations, which are about them. It is vitally important for leaders to engage in dialogue with disabled people at the very beginning of any initiative so they can really understand what is required in order to develop a barrier

free environment. Not doing this can lead to wasting a lot of time and money. For example providing screen readers for sight-impaired employees is an excellent idea but it will only really work if all the other software being used by the company is compatible with it. Engaging blind employees in discussing the issue early in the process will mean that all the potential problems are identify earlier and solutions developed. A particular company in the UK will only buy software, which is compatible with the equipment used by its blind staff. This has meant that programmers are adapting software so that it is accessible to all; otherwise they risk not being able to sell it.

As an individual, what we can do in daily life to remove prejudice and barriers?

We need to become more aware of the fact that human beings all have prejudices and are likely to stereotype. The more we can do to understand how other people live their lives the less likely we are to misunderstand and discriminate. We need to value difference and welcome it. We need to grab opportunities to discuss and debate difference so that we can re-educate ourselves. We need to recognise that other people view things differently from ourselves and rather than seeing this as problematic, we should strive to understand their point of view. For example, if we see disabled people as sick, helpless and worthy of sympathy we are less likely to encourage them to play a full part in the life of their community. If we see disabled people as talented, clever and productive we are much more likely to include them.

The UN has announced the theme for the International Day of Disabled People 2014 - Sustainable Development: The Promise of Technology. Technology (especially social media) is changing the way we respond to crises and it is important to involve people with disability in planning and response. What are your suggestions on the use of social media?

The development of social media offers all sorts of exciting opportunities for disabled people so long as the technology is accessible to everyone. Being able to contact people remotely and engage in conversation can do much to overcome social isolation. Use of social media has transformed the way in which disabled people communicate and keep in touch.

The use of social media platforms to get information out to people and to educate and raise their awareness is important. Many disability organisations interact ‘virtually’ not just with their peers in the UK but throughout the world. So good ideas being developed in China can be discussed in the UK and vice versa. New initiatives in health care using social media mean that people who might otherwise need institutional care in order monitor their health are enabled to continue living in their own homes.

Microprocessors and voice activated computer systems are transforming the lives of disabled people. As a result people with severe physical limitations can use powered wheelchairs. People can now live independently in their own homes because they can operate equipment etc. using computer assistive technologies.

The real challenge is not so much in developing devices but having the means to pay for them. Disabled people living in some parts of the world lack the most basic requirements so sophisticated technology is unlikely to be available to them. Developing assistive technologies, which enhance the lives of many disabled people, is vitally important but we must ensure that we don’t create a two-tier system in which the poorest disabled people are left behind.

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