The 5 things I’ve learnt from young wheelchair users for Disability History Month

Partnerships and Campaigns Officer at Whizz Kidz, Callum Shakespeare, on learning from youth to make a fairer future

This month is Disability History Month, which focuses on “Disability, Children and Youth”, and I had to think about this, being a wheelchair user myself. A thought occurred to me about the juxtaposition of the themes. Google defines history as “the whole series of past events connected with a particular person or thing”, yet I have always seen youth and children as looking forwards, not backwards. Indeed, it was Whitney Houston who said, “The children are our future”. With that in mind, I thought about what I had learnt from the young people I had worked with. The list was pretty long and, in some places, obvious, so I wanted to pick out five special ones below.

1. Middle of the road

One thing that has stuck with me was said at our Kidz Board Showcase. They spoke about the perceptions of disabled people as either amazing, record-setting, medal-winning paragons of humanity or as benefit-sucking, social care-needing, non-productive members of society. The sentence that spoke to me was, “Some disabled people just want to be normal people, with normal lives, doing normal jobs.” I.e., some people just want to be like everyone else and not at the wild, wide ends of the scale of our society.

2. Same, but different.

I know I said I would avoid the obvious, but this one is something I learn again and again working with the young people in the Whizz Kidz community. Every disability is individual. Every person presents, copes, and lives differently with their disability. Having the same “label” of a diagnosis as your proverbial neighbour doesn’t mean that you need the same support and adaptations and have the same views and outlook. As we do campaign work alongside the young people, I learn and witness their individuality as people, but also as people who are disabled by the society that they are in, from accessing work to education to the very basics of using a wheelchair. These young people taught me that this journey to disability equality might have come to the end of the beginning, but it is not near the beginning of the end.

3. A not-so-valued call

I was shocked this year by the discussions I had with the young people about their ongoing struggles with gig tickets. Hours spent on phone calls, being told their calls are valued, fighting to get the limited wheelchair spaces, and sometimes being told that the line they were told to try was the wrong number! Apparently, my advice of listening to the unpopular artists wasn't helpful...

4. Woof?

The last major thing I have learned is the rise of assistance dogs and their amazing abilities. When I was young(er), the only dogs you saw assisting people were guide dogs, and they came in one flavour – Labrador.

However, now these dogs help with hearing, medication, medical condition monitoring and emergencies, fetching items, and, of course, companionship. There is a whole structure of etiquette around these wonderful animals, too. I have had to learn how to control the impulse to stroke them and the gestures to avoid.

5. The future, not the past.

With jokes aside, it is fantastic to see the youth of this country, especially young disabled people, having a voice. They put themselves forward and ask for the changes they need in society to be valued, equal, protected, and proud citizens.

Disabled people were told this year to "do their duty” in the Autumn Statement, as the Chancellor and Prime Minister revised the benefits system (again) to promote people to work. Discussing the push to “make” disabled people “work from home”, the government hinted at the famous message from Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, where he stated, “England expects that every man will do his duty.” As someone who has had to work from home without a choice in the matter, this strikes a personal chord with me.

Nelson might have thought that England expects, but let us remember that there is also a duty to listen and learn from history to make the future better, not just misquote it. I believe these young people have the skills, passion, and knowledge to build a more accessible and equitable world, but will they do that if robbed of the freedom of choice?

Will you listen?

More about Callum

I am Callum Shakespeare, the Partnerships and Campaigns Officer here at Whizz Kidz. I have worked in the charity for four and a half years, starting in the London-based Employability Programme, before moving over to take charge of our strategic Partnerships and Allies, building support across various sectors to change the world we live in and to promote equity and independence for young wheelchair users. As our American cousins would say, I have “skin in the game” as I am a manual wheelchair user myself, following a spinal cord injury. However, if there’s one thing I have learnt, it’s that we can’t be static in our attitudes, thinking or ideas, especially around disability.