Kymberly Martin
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Global Disability Summit speech from Tom Shakespeare

The UK summit chair, Professor Tom Shakespeare, who visited Australia recently, delivered a powerful speech on disability and leadership, at the inaugural Global Disability Summit.

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“To live with impairment and yet achieve great things is a piece of everyday magic which all of us have perfected. It’s not about superstars. It’s about the majority of ordinary people with disability who assert their strength, their happiness and their pride, even in the face of failing bodies, piss and pain, frustration and tiredness,” he said. “To survive with an impairment, to assert yourself in a world that often does not want you, you have to be tough, to persevere, smile in the face of rudeness, and carry on when you are hurting and embarrassed. We are amazing. We do extraordinary things every single day. I know with total confidence that this is true of every single person with disability here and hundreds if not thousands of people back home.”

People with disability who succeed do it with grit and do not give up, Shakespeare said. “We overcome one thing, and we feel a sense of achievement. And then we overcome another thing, and it happens again. And slowly but surely, we realise how much more we can do.” He experienced this recently doing disability research in Africa, admitting he was frightened of going to Zambia, and Uganda.  “I thought I would not be able to get around or understand people’s lives.  But I realised that, despite a wheelchair, the mud, rocks and potholes, I could get around. I first realised this in Lusaka, where two strong colleagues took me by the arm, and frog-marched me down an alley to see a tailor with disability working in a street market. So I knew I could survive in Zambia, with a little help from my friends. Then I went to Sierra Leone one of the poorest countries which has had civil war and Ebola, and the last thing they needed was me. But, I went, and you know what?  It was fine. The people were wonderful, the stories were vivid, and everyone helped me, yet again. And what I am talking about is what the psychologists call ‘adversity inoculation’ where you succeed bit by bit, and become stronger to face the next challenge.  And boy, do we face challenges.”

He believes people with disability have a common language and despite coming from different cultures, experience the same frustrations, the same pity, the same stigma. “And we often come up smiling and grateful for the chances we have had.”

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People with disability who succeed do it with wit and charm, he said. Not because they are especially graced with these qualities, but because they learn them, because they have to. “We have to put others at their ease, so we smile or tell a joke. We often have to get them to help us, or at least, to open the door, and listen to us, and treat us fairly.” But it comes at a cost. We have to swallow our frustrations and smile politely at other people’s stupidities. But we know that this is the way to succeed and lead, to overcome ignorance and resistance. As George Bernard Shaw said, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”

People with disability break the rules, he said, “Because we do things our way. We are never going to conform, so we make a virtue out of necessity. We are outrageous. We play the fool. We exploit our differences to get what we want. Everyone remembers us. Half of them admire us and probably half of them hate us, but we get what we want, a lot of the time. We are stubbornly persistently effective in getting results.”

“I’ve just come back from two weeks in Australia, where they use the phrase ’tall poppy syndrome’ to describe how successful people can be attacked by their own community. As a community, sometimes people with disability are not very kind to our leaders. Maybe we have spent so much time asserting ourselves, that it can be hard to realise we are part of a wider network. Maybe we resent other people’s success.  We might have said so often that oppression is holding us back, that when someone else triumphs, we worry that it shows us up. But we can do this differently. We can be supportive of each other, and rejoice in the success of our peers. We can remember that every successful disabled person disproves the lie that we are second rate that we cannot achieve, that we cannot triumph.

“Many of us have watched the late, great Stella Young’s wonderful talk about ‘inspiration porn’, but I worry that we have misinterpreted her point. She was not saying that people with disability cannot excel, cannot be leaders, cannot be admirable. She was saying, stop patronising us, stop thinking that any minor feat is worth celebrating, spare your praise for when we come good.”

Finally he made the point that people with disability lead differently. “We do not have to lead from the front, though we can. We work together and often, because we have to. We need other people, which is our strength. We cannot go it alone, even if we want to.

“I have tried to get the most out of others. I have tried to lead from the back. I have tried to collaborate. I find that if you want someone to do something, persuading them to think it was their idea in the first place is more effective than telling them to do it your way. You don’t have to take the credit for it. You just need it to happen. “There is a quiet strength, a quiet leadership, which consists of influencing opinions and priorities, not ordering people around.  Remember the wit and the charm.

“We can do the other kind too. We can have big ideas, boss people and lead from the front. But let’s show there are different ways to be a leader. There are as many different ways as there are people on this stage, probably as there are people in this room. But we need to keep passing the baton and not make ourselves indispensable. Let’s connect with others, and mentor the next generation of leaders, and hand over and maybe we can move onto other things… and that’s all I have to say.”