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Gordon's D-Zone Arcive (2006-2014)

Monday, May 28, 2012

Towards a Discourse of Cooperation - not Confrontation!


I admit that I have distanced myself from engaging in disability activism for some time now. I also have neglected writing post entries here. I think it’s because there are changes in my private life which are radically changing my lifestyle and the way I look at things. Indeed, it’s also redefining my identity as a disabled person and activist. I do feel that the cause of disability activism remains important to me on both a personal level and in relation to those who are disabled by a society that can still exclude and reject people on account of their physical, sensory, intellectual or psychological difference.

In the past, when I started involving myself in disability activism, I was quick to adopt a disabled identity as a political statement affirming that biology (or genetics) wasn’t destiny but that much of the problems we encounter as disabled people are largely caused by an interplay between wrong attitude and disabling barriers. This still holds true because the social and environmental structures do have a major part to play in our exclusion and the quality of life we enjoy.

However, in my enthusiasm on adopting a new positive identity, I tended to start looking at issues in terms of ‘us’ (disabled people) and ‘them’ (non-disabled people) which became a barrier to develop my understanding of what I wanted to achieve. Even if I didn’t adopt a radical approach that excludes non-disabled people from talking on matters that concerns us, I felt (and still feel) that much of our history as a disabled people which started in the early days of industrialisation, was characterised by exclusion, segregation and medicalisation.

Even if one may argue that disabled people are more included in society today, this isn’t the same for every person born with an impairment in the rest of the world while the Western idea of our lives as people with impairment is still influenced by the idea that death is preferable to a life with impairment and this medical view is resulting in late term abortions of foetuses pre-diagnosed as having an impairment and a lobby for the legalisation of the right-to-die. We’re still considered “lives not worth living” by some - even if this is never stated openly.


I was well aware of all this when I decided I had to do something to change things. However, I was inclined to favour a discourse of confrontation. It was ‘them’ against ‘us’. After all, “they” had exploited “us” and took away our dignity for far too long. Then, it was our time to take over what was, finally, ours! But this also conflicted with a reality that could be at odds with this line of thought. This was the fact that, unlike other differences such as race or gender, you aren’t born in a family where all members are disabled from birth as I was.

So, you have to live with a certain feeling of unease because the “them” may be your family, your friends or even your partner! But, yes, there are ways to resolve the conflict. That is by looking at the struggle against disability as one that is about claiming your right to be included and the right to be different. Inasmuch as this argument is valid, it is still based on the distinction between “disabled” and “non-disabled” people which may easily become one based on confrontation rather than cooperation.

Today, as I’m seeking answers to deep questions of life, I realise more and more that impairment is part of human existence. It can develop during everyone’s lifetime and not all disabled people are born with impairments but they acquire them due to circumstances they encounter over the course of life, such as diseases, accidents and wars. As people grow older, the chance of acquiring one form or another of impairment increases as well. Perhaps that’s why I always felt physically like an old man…


This is something that, as an activist, I have been thinking about. The realisation is that everyone, at some point in life, is affected by impairment and that while one can claim to be disabled - which is true, one might experience disability when s/he tries to do what s/he used to do before. But the person hasn’t changed radically. On the other hand, his/her body has changed. And it’s a society that rejects that such change is inevitable that rejects people like me and considers us to be almost a species separate from the rest of humanity. Yes, that is what creates the greatest barriers and the deepest wound and the worse of suffering in our lives.

It’s good to continue with medical research and in finding solutions to problems that afflict the body or mind. I’m not against research as such. My problem is when we are given unrealistic expectations and hopes that we could somewhat become “normal” when we could improve our lives today if society and the way it’s structured takes more account of our differences. Then, many disabled people, would continue living a life that can be rich and a source of fulfilment

I did spend a year or two when I acquired my visual impairment) where I spend long periods of time hoping in a future where things would return to the way they were before. This never happened but what if I remained hoping in a miraculous cure or medical breakthrough?

Would I be still lingering in self-pity and in a state of stasis, wishing to end it all?


Fortunately, I did find support to find other ways to live a better life. Indeed, I dare say that my life has been enriched by all the friends (old and new) that have supported me during this dark period. The support of my family and many others. I know that my willpower and determination on their own would have been useless if I didn't find the support of sincere people who genuinely wanted to help me out without expecting a return. And, I was a risky investment... Of course, I'm not denying that I had a part to play. What I'm saying is that today I realise that I could have never achieved this much if I was dismissed and rejected there and then because I was considered a hopeless case because I had impairments..

Thus, instead of a dialogue based on confrontation, I propose one of cooperation because, in truth, the issue of disability is one that concerns everyone alive today - beyond race, age, gender, faith an belief or sexual orientation. Indeed, it goes beyond class, occupation and many others more. Instead of turning each other to enemies, we should recognise that disability is an issue concerning all of us. At the same time, society should give us the opportunity to speak for ourselves because we are living the experience of disability on a daily basis. An experience of being excluded because society has forgotten that we are a part of it and that our differences don’t make us inferior human beings.

Indeed, we must cooperate and listen to both sides of the issue. For, in truth, we need each other to break down the barriers of disability. We cannot achieve inclusion on our own.

There are no “us” or “them”...

There’s only “us”!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Remembering Mgr Michael Azzopardi: Pioneer in the Maltese Disability Sector

I wanted to share some of my thoughts on Mgr Michael Azzopardi, who is the founder of the first institution catering for the needs of Maltese disabled people. I won’t provide any extensive information on the man because you can read his biography at the website of the residence he founded in the town of Siggiewi at Id-Dar tal-Providenza. This is, in fact, the first residence of in a time when people like me would be often hidden away in their own houses and often in undignified conditions.


While I remain against the practice of institutionalisation, I have to recognise that the services provided by the House of Providence (a translation of the Maltese name) have become more person-centred while encouraging residents to return to live in their own community or in supported living accommodation. Indeed, I hope to be soon one of those who will benefit from supported living services provided by the House of Providenza.To be faithful to history, the main reason why Michael Azzopardi had to settle in what once was the remote town of Siggiewi was because people just didn’t want to be living anywhere near disabled people. In fact, we were often considered to be less than humans, if not products of sin and evil. Which also highlights the fact that Mgr Azzopardi was also challenging in some way the Church by affirming the right of disabled people to a dignified life.


True, he would call us “angels” but, again, we should keep in mind that people tended to look at us as demonic manifestations, the term “angel” was preferable in the context of those times. Granted, that the term is still in use but slowly our humanity is recognised as we finally have more rights an greater inclusion in Malta. I was a little bit perhaps to critical of the work carried out by Mgr Azzopardi because I knew the word “angel” was one which diminished my humanity. I also knew that the work of the House of Residence has often been used to reduce our lives as disabled people to a less unfortunate one that requires the charity of others.


But now as we mark the 25th year since his death, I realise that far from creating an institutional residence for disabled people, Mgr Azzopardi wanted us to remain in our own communities and close to other people who were, like us, human beings.


This, I think that Mgr Michael Azzopardi was a pioneer!