‘This is the people speaking’ - campaigner says carnival will send powerful message with flowers
Maura’s spearheading Disability Action’s ‘Remove the Label’ campaign, which is designed to send a strong message to the powers-that-be on the new Derry and Strabane District Council, that people living with disabilities need to be at the forefront of policy makers’ thinking following the full devolution and transfer of powers next April.
As part of the campaign, people throughout Londonderry and Strabane have been filling out specially commissioned postcards as well as an online survey outlining what changes they’d like to see across society in relation to disability.
Maura and officers from Disability action have also been taking part in a series of community workshops, where people have been attaching these powerful messages to flowers, which on Saturday will be presented at the seat of civic power in Londonderry.
Speaking to the Sentinel in advance, Maura explains: “It starts over in Ebrington Square. It’s a carnival in connection with the postcard we’ve had out now for the past couple of weeks.
“We’ll have a carnival atmosphere organised for Ebrington. We have DJs from the Tuned In project. We tried our best to use all the disability projects in the Derry and Strabane District so it’s everyone coming together to celebrate differences and diversity.”
As well as DJ sets from Tuned In - an innovative community based project that facilitates young adults with learning disabilities to reach their potential through music - there will also be performances from local singer songwriters at a specially erected marquee in the former military barracks.
A Samba band will then lead a parade across the Peace Bridge to the Guildhall, where the powerful floral petitions will be handed in, followed by more music and celebrations until 5pm.
Local pop and rock band, The Plantin, will be amongst the performers fresh from the release of their debut EP ‘Blaze,’ earlier this year.
Whilst Maura has had an interest in the rights and needs of individuals living with disabilities it’s only really over the past year she’s got involved in volunteering and campaigning.
“I only started in August,” she tells the paper. “But it’s a continuation of something I did a bit of last year during the City of Culture.”
Carey-Anne Clarke, who is an engagement officer with Disability Action in the North West, says the floral messages will hopefully plant seeds in the heads of not only policy makers but the wider public as well.
She explains: “One of the things the workshops have been doing is that everybody’s been mass producing these flowers and they’re being asked: what thing would you like to see changed?
“One of the key messages of the carnival is that we’ll be carrying these flowers, which are very pretty, but will be carrying these very important messages about the things that will make a difference to people with disabilities’ lives, right into the heart of the Guildhall as well.”
Maura says the campaign has embraced a wide range of groups and organisations with a common interest in breaking down prejudice that still persists within the community and within some institutions.
“We are working with people with all kinds of disabilities from physical to sensory and learning disabilities,” says Maura. “We are even working with a group that’s for carers.”
“We are trying to branch out to everyone and bring them all together,” she adds.
The response to the Disability Action campaign to date has been extremely encouraging.
Carey-Anne says: “People are really getting their say. The predominant themes are people’s attitudes to disability, awareness of disability, and access.
“Along with another range like car parking, blue badges, access to benefits, access to different supports as well.
“These are all key themes that are coming across.”
What’s most powerful about the campaign, according to Maura, is that the messages are coming in, not from families, carers or advocacy organisations, but from individuals who have had experience of living with a disability themselves.
“When we are in the workshops the children or the participants do a wee label, which will be tied to the flowers at the end and they say what they want to change,” she says.
“And the big thing is that this is coming from the horse’s mouth. This isn’t families filling out the postcards. This is the people speaking. This is the children [and adult participants] saying that they want to be listened to and they want to be involved in the community.
“It’s really touching to see stuff because you know it’s coming from them,” says Maura.
Maura lives with cerebral palsy and has done for the past 30 years but thanks to supportive family and friends the condition’s always been incidental.
Nonetheless, it comes with its ups and downs and prejudicial encounters.
“I’ve been lucky to have been raised by a family who taught me to just get out there,” she says. “There’s been no special treatment. All my brothers and sisters went to university so I had to go to university and whatever.”
Sometimes, however, low levels of awareness can lead to uncomfortable experiences.
“I have had positive experiences and I’ve had negative experiences,” she says. “Me, myself, if I had to fill out this postcard I would put in about more training for people working with the public such as bouncers, taximen, shopkeepers, to educate people that you converse with and run into, so that they see you as a person rather than see you as a disability.”
That’s what the whole campaign is about.
“So, the point of this is, you are removing the label of the disability and people are seeing you as a person.
“I’m a single mother and I know, because of the negative experience I’ve had too, I’m trying to raise my child to accept diversity and encourage it. She knows all about disability,” she says.
“Éilis [Maura’s daughter] filled in the card herself, which she asked to do. She wrote ‘More help for people with disabilities like my mammy.’”
Maura says that after 30 years navigating disability-unfriendly environments at home and abroad she’s noticed improvements but finds it hard to gauge how much progress has been made.
“Because I’m from Derry, which I love, let me say this too, you experience it everywhere, not just in Derry. I’ve been in America and I’ve been down in Oxegen [the former music festival held at Punchestown from 2004 to 2011] where I was dragged to the First Aid tent because they thought I was...”
Maura reckons that such treatment is less likely in her home town because of her own gregarious and outgoing attitudes.
“I love Derry, and because it is a small town and because my mammy did allow me to go out and about and be myself people have gotten to know me around the town and they know I’m disabled but they know me and who I am,” she says.
Thus it’s difficult to say whether we are behind or ahead of the curve in our societal attitudes here.
The United States can be equally, if not more, prejudiced, as Maura acknowledges.
“Two years ago I was denied access into a bar in Florida and I thought the Americans would be more ...
“I think, to be honest, it just depends on the night, the person, who’s there and the level of awareness.”
Carey-Anne agrees: “Training’s a really important thing. It’s important people take what they learn from a training session and they put it into their day-to-day encounters with someone with a disability.
“It’s really about thinking about the full picture, about including people with disabilities. It’s kind of the point of the carnival as well with the two Councils merging.
“Disability was kind of merely an add on to the City of Culture but we are very keen with this new Council, with community planning and so on that - this is one of the reasons for this event - we are putting it front and centre this time.”
Through volunteering on the ‘Remove the Label’ campaign Maura has been awestruck by the work being done by many groups right across the city and beyond.
“There are so many organisations in Derry to help people with disabilities now,” she says. “It’s unbelievable. I’d love to see them involved within the communities as well as their own organisations. Put them in with everyone else. Not keeping people in sections or clusters.”
Carey-Anne says Local Government’s approach to disability needs to be more than a mere Section 75 box-ticking exercise.
“Consulting with people with disabilities needs to not be just consultation with one person,” she says. “It needs to be with a wider ranging group. People with disabilities are so diverse as well.”
Maura agrees: “Everyone is an individual and every disability is different. Even cerebral palsy, that I have, is so diverse that you can’t say: ‘Oh, I know someone with cerebral palsy, so I know cerebral palsy.”
A strong emphasis is to put strong training programmes in place and to get those who avail of it to practice a more person-centred engagement in their day-to-day lives and work.
Carey -Anne: says: “Any training that we are talking about is that it’s really about engaging with the individual and corresponding to the individual’s needs too. You can’t just put one sticking plaster over a disability. It’s really about including and talking to every individual as well.”
Maura pays tribute to the sterling work many people are already doing to implement this.
“You have to hand it to these people who are doing great jobs and even the people working in various projects with children - the older people absolutely love them as if they’re part of their family. They just need to be thanked,” says Maura.
“Even myself who has lived with a disability all my life. Somedays you do feel sorry for yourself but when you’re out working with others and the work people are doing, It’s unbelievable. It’s just been a brilliant experience.”
The Disability Action ‘Remove the Label’ carnival will take place at Ebrington Square from 12.30pm on Saturday (October 4).
There’ll be a variety of music and outdoor activities on offer and everyone is welcome to come along and support the event.
The parade across the Peace Bridge will take place from 1.30pm with the celebrations continuing at the Guildhall until 5pm.
For more information visit: www.disabilityaction.org