New Unlimited Trainee Alistair Gentry is taking over from Sarah Thewlis. In his first blog he discusses visible and invisible disabilities in the workplace. Content Warning: this post contains mentions of suicidal thoughts and depression.
I never thought I’d find it exciting to be considered disabled, but I am excited because I’m joining Unlimited as their trainee in supporting disabled artists to make the best and most ambitious work they can. The social model of disability we follow at Unlimited concentrates more on the structural, societal and commercial barriers that obstruct disabled people, rather than siting the problem primarily with the person themselves. It also covers the entire range of impairments including mental ones and invisible physical ones.
Many disabled people experience everyone except them being considered an expert on what their ‘disability’ is and how ‘disabled’ they are. You’ve probably been on public transport and witnessed somebody refusing to make space or give up their seat because they don’t think a person who genuinely needs it “looks disabled”, or doesn’t seem disabled “enough”. For many people it’s not this binary; they may have better or worse days, bodies and minds change over time and in different contexts. People can gain impairments, they can fade, flare up, become more manageable.
I’m one of those under the radar disabled people. Whilst it’s not a competition about who’s had it worst, and some disabled or mentally ill people don’t like to use words like “suffered”, I’ve certainly suffered from depression throughout my adult life. It’s been debilitating and has made it very hard to find any employer who had any faith that I could be a good employee. In some ways there’s more stigma about mental illness than there is about physical impairments, and people can be pretty scared of the latter. At least with visible disabilities there’s growing consciousness about not saying or doing the wrong thing; meanwhile many people are still freely using bonkers, mental, nuts or any of the other terms that are currently embedded in everyday English language without most people ever thinking about how stigmatising they might be to some.
A couple of years ago, things were bleak. I had felt suicidal for a while, because at the time that was the only way I could think of to kill the feelings I had. Slowly, I began to find my way back from wanting to die every day and was working on a-n: the artists information company’s online resource about mental health for their members. It started with this article, in which I outed myself as depressive. That’s what it felt like; a braver thing to do than it should be, because everyone should be able to ask for the help and adjustment they need to live their lives instead of living in a closet that most others don’t even know exists.
The phrase we often use about disabled or other marginalised people is that “we need to be seen”, and we definitely do. We need to be seen by people like us as an example of what’s possible and by people who aren’t like us so they know we’re just as good as they are, once the playing field is level. Terms like “seen” are very much on my mind as my vision is also deteriorating, possibly irreversibly, so I’m living with a whole new set of changes, adaptations and adjustments too.
I am a writer and a performance artist when I’m not in the office. Recently I’ve been working on a digital AI puppet, and previously I’ve set up an imaginary tourist information office and re-enacted Elizabethan magic, among other things. I was also part of the team for The Bank Job and we blew up a van at Canary Wharf, representing the £1.2million of local people’s debts that the project bought and abolished.
In my art work, my differences and my sometimes unusual perspective on things make me not disabled but superabled. Conversely, in most cases where I was rejected from a conventional job it wasn’t because I can’t be productive or work hard; I can and I do and I have, and have the CV to prove it. The real impairment is in some conventional employers’ attitudes. Fortunately, Unlimited is not a conventional employer.