Salisbury Arts Centre played host to the 'From the Personal to the Universal' symposium back in April. Between presentations, Sophie Partridge asked Disability Studies Lecturer Colin Cameron how academic ideas can play a practical role in disabled peoples' lives
As an audience member, I was struggling a bit with the symposium. Times are really hard in Cripland and the mood was very serious. I was there courtesy of DAO, as part of an interview writing course and Colin Hambrook suggested to me that I "Do the other Colin" - Dr. Cameron, pioneer in defining French & Swain’s affirmative model of disability, yet never too serious...
With just 10 minutes to be not absolutely serious, I cut to my chase asking "You're a bit of an academic. Am I right?"
Thankfully, Colin partly agreed. "Well, in my work role, I am a senior lecturer of the degree in Disability Studies at Northumbria University. I am Doctor Cameron. So in that sense, yes, academic. I've been called other things. But academic might do."
My eyes lit up! "Is there much room for humour in academia then?" "Oh, I think so." Colin replied; "there's two types of lecturers. You have technicians who present a very dry, structured delivery. And you have performers - their lectures are performances. And I would certainly see myself as falling into the performer role.”
Just to prove he does as he says on his tin, he added: "Sometimes, I've got no idea what anecdotes I'm going to end up recollecting during a lecture... Talking about choices and decisions and where they lead you, I’ve talked about when I inadvertently started a mass fight at the back of a coach on its way back to Slough after a beer festival by asking a builder “Do you swing?” Or about when I found myself with a rose between my teeth posing for photos in Ladbroke Grove wearing nothing but a cut-off Ian Dury t-shirt. You tend to think afterwards “Blimey, how on earth did I get here?” Which is much the same as I thought at the time. Some things are best left in the dim and distant past, but drawing on personal experience can also be a good way of illustrating a point."
I was thinking much the same thing about having been dressed as a parrot only two days before. However what I asked was whether humour came out not only in his lectures but also in the Affirmative Model of Disability? “Oh .. Yes. Well. Right. Okay. Good question. Well the Affirmative Model is a simplified representation of a complex reality. Like all theoretical models. Like the Social Model.”
He elaborated, “The Affirmative Model was an idea which was first suggested by John Swain and Sally French in 2000. In my own PhD, I worked to give it structure, so it can be used as a tool.”
“Practical application”, I chipped in hopefully! “Yes.” He agreed, “Practical application. In essence, it’s an attempt to express the spirit of what Disability Arts is. The expression of disability pride. It unites two definitions. Impairment is identified as – bloody hell. What is it defined as?” We chuckle! Then he clarified: “as physical, sensory, cognitive or emotional difference to be respected and expected on its own terms. Disability is a role which simultaneously invalidates the subject position of people with impairments and validates the subject position of those identified as ‘normal’. Disability is a role imposed on people with impairments which leaves us unable to relate positively to impairment. So we are always expected to be too busy trying to prove how well we’ve overcome impairment. Or too busy with feeling sorry about our own tragedy.” He added, “And this has a role in reinforcing and validating the idea of normality being a good thing.”
Noticing I’d stopped squeaking, Colin re-assured: “Coming back to your question of humour? Yes, well if we’re regarding impairment as difference. It’s who we are. It’s’ about what we are. As disabled people, we often see the absurdity of life. I remember Donald, a blind guy I talked with during my PhD. One thing he said was, `Disabled people see the world at its stupidest.’ He was referring to a time when he’d been waiting at Chalk Farm tube station. While he’d been waiting standing there this guy passing him by had said “You’re at Chalk Farm tube station!” And Donald said afterwards, `How does he think I manage without people like him pointing out the bloody obvious.’”
Colin explained: “You can respond to inappropriate comments from strangers by getting pissed off. Or by looking at it as absurd behaviour that validates a non-disabled person’s way of thinking about themselves. The guy was attempting to create a role for Donald in that situation - as being dependent – which made him feel good about himself because he’d ‘helped the poor disabled’. I suppose you could either laugh at shit like that and think, ‘You twat.’ Or you can let it grind you down as a lot of people do.”
He went on to explain his intention for the Affirmative Model to turn this on its head. “I’d like to see it used as a practical tool in the same way that the Social Model is an invaluable, practical tool. It’s very important that it’s not – absolutely not – meant to replace the Social Model. It is there as another tool for us to use. To make sense of situations like that. And so we can refuse to become what we’re expected to become by other people.”
My little brain whirred: “Using the Affirmative Model as a tool, then in that scenario, what would be the appropriate response? Would it be to rebuff through humour?” Was my understanding correct? “Yes”, Colin agreed “Donald could have made an aggressive response. Or perhaps he doesn’t need to respond. But it’s what you take away from those kinds of experiences. The Affirmative Model allows you to make sense of what’s happened in a way in which you can refuse to be lessened. Because you are able to understand what’s going on within the dynamic of that interaction. It’s because most of these demeaning experiences happen out of the blue, when we’re least expecting them.”
“Definitely” I squeaked! “When we’re getting on with our business. And somebody comes up...” “Yes. Like an interruption.” More excited squeaking and I asked Colin if he thought that related to a comment from Hassan Mahamdallie (the former Senior Diversity Officer at Arts Council England and author of the 'Creative Case' keynote essay Breaking the Code, New Approaches to Diversity and Equality in the Arts.) In his speech to the symposium Hassan had observed that those at the `top’ in our society simply have no need to be aware of how the rest feel – the outsiders perspective. It is up to us on the lower ranks to understand how others feel, in order to send out ripples and initiate change. So in my head just as the government is `safe’ and ignorant in its tower, so are non-disabled people in theirs!? These are such attitudes born from positions of power?
“Yes, yes” from Colin, “standpoint theory explains the narrowness of the world seen from the top down.” Colin went on to explain how his interpretation of the Affirmative Model grew. Rather than basing all on his own thoughts, he talked with 16 disabled people; each were interviewed three times, for two-hour on their observations in many varied, everyday settings. He then looked through the interviews and began evaluating their responses: “considering the stories in the light of various theorists. The affirmative definitions are distillations of that. It’s an interpretation at the heart of what people are saying.”
Finally Colin concluded, “it is grounded absolutely in disabled people's experience. It’s a view which is rooted within a perspective of people who have been positioned socially as outsiders.”
And then readers, just as we were getting to the heart of the matter – Thatcher’s sociopathic tendencies – our time was up and back we went, to seriousness but I was reassured that, within the affirmative, there’s always place for a little laughter...
You can find out more about the Affirmative Model of Disability by clicking on this link to read an interview Colin Hambrook did with Colin Cameron back in 2009. This was added to with an essay: 'Nothing To Do With Me: Everything To Do With Me' published in 2011.