Smashing stereotypes of disabled people

Britain's disabled have long been subject to common prejudices, but, as one man explains, public views are best influenced by the disabled themselves.

Tom Comerford, 47, doesn’t believe disabled people should be stereotyped as vulnerable, passive victims. As a disabled rights activist he strives to change the public's perceptions.
He has been in a wheelchair for 10 years and is a member of the Coalition of Disabled People Birmingham (CODPB) and the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network (DAN).

He jokingly states his disability for the record: “I’m a Newcastle United supporter,” he says, in his soft Geordie accent.

His reluctance to disclose his real disability stems from the fact he wishes to change perceptions of disabled people.

Tom wants to be seen from within a ‘social model’ instead of a ‘medical’ one.

He explains: “Local businesses and authorities often think of disabled people within the medical model – they want to cure you. I don’t want to be cured, I want to be accepted.

“The social model is about looking at the person – it’s a campaign for social inclusion. Just say I’m a wheelchair user,” he adds.

From this, you would envision a bold and brash persona, but you would be mistaken. Instead, Tom has a quiet and easy-going demeanour that belies the passion in his voice.

And this passion permeates his work as development worker with the CODPB and DAN.

A large part of his work with the CODPB involves going out into the community and talking to disabled people and giving them the confidence to speak out for their rights.

He says: “A lot of disabled people live in shells. I try and help to crack them.”

Tom fills with enthusiasm when describing the satisfaction he gets from his work: “I love it, it’s fantastic. It’s hard, but we’ve got the message and we go forward with it.

“I go into day centres and everyone goes up and speaks to you and asks how you are – you can feel their confidence. To see disabled people smiling is fantastic.”

The CODPB is a significant force in the disabled rights movement with 750 members.

The main service they provide is a forum which invites members to talk about issues that are affecting them including access to housing and public transport, getting jobs and the closure of day centres.

Tom plays a big part in launching campaigns that address these issues.

He says: “I’ve talked at a few conferences and spoke to the city council to try and improve services. I also lecture at colleges and schools to educate people about disabled people’s rights.”

He continues: “We want to stop people patting us on the head because we are disabled. The campaigning we do involves patting others on the head to explain how uncomfortable it makes us feel.”

Tom has been working with the CODPB since moving to Birmingham a year ago from his hometown of Gateshead, Newcastle.

It was there, 11 years ago that he began to organise DAN, a national network of disabled people that campaign for equality via the use of non-violent, direct action.

Why campaign in this way?

Tom says: “If you talk and have meetings, it takes longer for things to happen. But direct action makes people more aware because they can see the problems we face.”

He adds: “Non-violent, direct action can achieve things to try and get equality.”

Handcuffing themselves to buses and trains and weaving their wheelchairs in and out of traffic are just some examples of the kind of action they took as part of their campaign to highlight the problems disabled people have in using public transport.

The first action Tom got involved in took place in Birmingham and resulted in the city centre being clogged up with traffic.

Tom recalls: “People would complain they had been inconvenienced because they couldn’t get home.

“But once you explain to them that you are inconvenienced in that way every day and educate them, they change their minds.”

Apart from awakening the public to the problems they face, another aim of DAN, Tom says, is to challenge organisations and charities such as the Disability Rights Commission who claim to represent disabled people to government, even though they are not made up of disabled people themselves.

Tom says pointedly: “The government listen to charities but not people within the movement.”

Tom also questions the ethics and ethos behind these organisations.

Two years ago, Tom and around 20 other members of DAN led a protest against Leonard Cheshire, who claim to be the leading charity provider of services for the disabled in the UK, at their Red Feather Ball in Manchester.

He recalls: “They have a symbol of a red feather and we wanted to say, ‘Stick your feather!’

“A lot of celebrities attended and we stopped the party going ahead.

“We got in before the celebrities and made a mess of it. We threw feathers and stink bombs.”

You can tell this is an issue Tom feels strongly about, as he continues unprompted: “Large organisations and charities treat disabled people as special. We try and integrate disabled people- we’re not special, we’re different.

“The Disability Rights Commission is very weak. I know a lot of cases where people have been discriminated against, but the Commission haven’t got the teeth to take action.”

Tom knows what he would like to see instead: “Government money should be pumped into the coalition which is made up of disabled people. If we had more money our voice would be stronger.”

His motivation to get involved with disabled rights activism came after seeing the injustices he and his disabled friends face every day.

He says: “I had a friend who was 40 years old when he died, and he had never been on a bus. Not because he couldn’t, but because he was too scared to.”

Tom adds it is not disabled people with the problem, but society as a whole. Once society starts adapting, both physically and mentally to the needs of people with disabilities, then they can be seen as no different to able-bodied people.

Tom is willing to share the problems he has in his daily life: “If I were going to a restaurant, I would ask is there access? When we get there, there would be a step. I would be treated differently because my wheelchair would have to be lifted up and it’s not a nice experience. The simple thing is to have a ramp there.”

The third phase of the Disability Discrimination Act which came into force on October 1, 2004, aims to address this very issue.

It makes it law for businesses and organisations to make ‘reasonable’ adjustments to their premises to make them accessible for people with disabilities, sensory as well as physical.

However, Tom says: “It’s still not enough.”

He points out that if a business fails to accommodate the needs of disabled people, they could only be fined, not sent to prison which is what can happen if people discriminate against others on the grounds of gender and race.

Tom also highlights the problems he has with public transport: “If I went into town with three or four of my friends who use wheelchairs, it would take two or three hours for us all to get into town because buses only cater for one wheelchair.

“For someone who isn’t disabled it takes 30 minutes. But because people think buses have wheelchair access they don’t think there is a problem.”

Tom’s next step is to take his message across the Pond and take part in a campaign with the American disabled rights organisation, Adapt, to try and get disabled people out of special homes and back into society.

Tom has not only accepted his disability – he is proud of it too. And he is positive that greater equality for disabled people will emerge.

He says: “It’s still a massive fight we’ve got, but we’ve got activists who have been members of the movement for over 20 years who are ploughing their experiences into the campaigns. Not just at the negotiating table, but also in the form of direct action.”