Fern leaves have been ruined for me. I suppose, some of the usual things these beautiful plants usually call to mind include the natural world, new life and at the other end of the spectrum sporting success and national pride. As a disabled person, they remind me of something more specific and contained within four walls.
Seated in outpatients waiting rooms as a bored child and teen it was the shock of greenery on one of the posters that caught my eye among the bland reminders to exercise, eat vegetables, get flu shots, give blood and please tell the radiologist if think you might be pregnant. And so, I read it. The text next to fern leaf enumerated: Your rights when using a Health and Disability Service. Thinking about it now this would have been some of my first exposure to my legal rights as a disabled person. They went to the back of my mind.
By the time I was eight I had a growing medical vocabulary – spastic quadriplegia, twin-to-twin transfusion, mono-zygotic, clonus, non-progressive condition, fine motor skills, contractures, adductor release, tendon transfer – and part of me enjoyed looking precocious in front of my doctors. I also had strong advocates in my parents who themselves were equipped with eight years of living alongside me. But it was me who could reel off the lengthy words with a kind of pride.
I was lucky. My family had given me a self-assuredness, the idea that disability should not be a barrier to doing whatever I wanted. I had enough privilege in terms of opportunity that this was broadly true. But I had less of a sense of rights as a set of principles I might be able to turn to if this idea was ever challenged. My rights stayed largely abstract to me.
I was lucky. My family had given me a self-assuredness, the idea that disability should not be a barrier to doing whatever I wanted.
At university, they first started to become real. For my first year, I lived in university accommodation that in its early history had housed law undergraduates. Mostly it still did house them when I was there. They were interesting, under-slept and they used phrases I didn’t understand like “jurisprudence”.
In parallel to them, I stumbled into a Sociology degree where I began learning about the Disability Rights movement. Disability Rights activists had fought to change the way society viewed disabled people. These activists challenged the idea that disability was the barrier and instead saw that it was society which had failed to accommodate us. This fundamental reframing became the basis for disability policy here and overseas. I joke with people that I was studying myself. It was more than that. It was giving me a sense of context and history of disability. Small things that I took for granted like curb cuts or the wheelchair symbol on doors and parking spaces were victories of collective action. It turned out that the movement had helped shape other things too, like my right to be in a lecture theatre at all. It was giving me new ways of understanding my experience. I looked around campus at the handful of students I could see were disabled. My study was giving me new words. Words I wish I’d had earlier, words all of us should have access to, words that are only half the story.
The other half is the law. The preserve of my underslept fellow students. How these social movements are translated (or not) into the rules we live by. Stumbling now towards the end of my degree, I was wondering where this study of self would lead me. Thanks to a chance conversation I found myself working at the intersection of the social and legal worlds on the Community Law Manual.
I looked around campus at the handful of students I could see were disabled. My study was giving me new words. Words I wish I’d had earlier, words all of us should have access to, words that are only half the story.
The Community Law Manual is a plain English legal resource. It was developed from a collection of a legal fact sheets into the impressive book and online resource it is today. The intention of the Manual is to provide legal information to marginalised communities on the everyday issues they may encounter. Printed every year to stay current, the 2018-19 edition now includes a Disability Rights chapter alongside updated information on topics ranging from Immigration to Work and Income and Domestic Violence.
The Disability Rights chapter replaces a chapter that was previously limited to the Health and Disability consumers code – remember the fern leaf poster? The new content was developed in consultation with the disability community. The process involved a lot of learning for me and the Manual team about the everyday barriers disabled contend with, even to have our voices heard . It has left me with a still increasing respect for my resilient, tenacious community. It has underlined for me that one of the major accessibility issues remains for us, access to information. But that knowing your rights has a quiet power.
The team behind the Manual hope the new chapter contributes towards improving disabled people’s access to information. We welcome feedback from the community about how to continue to improve it for future editions. You can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can also pre-order copies of the Community Law Manual 2018-19 at this address. From later this month the new edition will be available at your local library, Citizens Advice Bureau or Community Law Centre as well as online.