The road to respect | Disability in Malta

We speak to Critical Disability Studies academic Dr Shaun Grech and members of disability empowerment group Breaking Limits about Malta’s shortcomings in the disability sector, following the screening of a well-received video on the subject at a Valletta 2018 conference.

During last month’s Imagine 18 conference – a series of talks related to Malta’s role as European Capital for Culture in 2018 – one of the speakers, the Maltese, UK-based academic Shaun Grech, decided to eschew the standard formula.

Instead of a brief, ten-minute presentation, Grech, a sociologist based at the Manchester Metropolitan University, whose research centres on the critical study of disability in global contexts, announced that he would be presenting a video instead.

Shot over two days ahead of the conference with full collaboration from Breaking Limits – an organisation of disabled people working for the full inclusion of the disabled in Maltese society – the video tackled the issue of accessibility and culture in Valletta in the most direct way possible: by giving voice and ownership to the very people who Grech claims ‘are the real experts and who own their narrative.’

But perhaps what riveted the audience’s attention most wasn’t simply the subject matter itself, but the way it was presented. Over and above the film’s DIY charm, the short documentary – showing footage of the Breaking Limits crew attempting to make their way around Valletta, coupled with sound bites from the same group – was refreshing for being so honest. Far from being represented as figures of pity (an issue tackled at some length in the video), the protagonists were given full space to speak lucidly and frankly about what irks them most in the way Maltese society reads and deals with disability.

But possibly the clearest marker of the video’s success at grabbing the audience was the way it inspired laughter – not uncomfortable (or even polite) titters, but genuine belly laughs could be heard rippling across the Manoel Theatre, as the audience was often surprised – perhaps, sadly enough, at the unsentimental bluntness of the Breaking Limits members which, more often than not, was fuelled by a barely-concealed rage, but a nuanced, intelligent and productive one.

Speaking to MaltaToday, Grech points out that the video, largely improvised as it was, ended up addressing some key issues about disability in Malta which may have evaded people’s attention, intentionally or not. What we seem to lack, the video appears to suggest, is a mature framework through which we can constructively understand and process disability.

Despite not wanting to fall into the category of the overseas-based Maltese professional who “revels in dissing his own country”, praising the fact that Malta still appears to hold on to a sense of community that many foreign countries seem to have lost, Grech nonetheless believes that when it comes to disability, “Malta remains profoundly excluding, and at times disabling”.

Some of the main issues related to disability, according to Grech, are difficult to tackle because they are so deeply ingrained that they have become second nature. This problem mainly arises because “disabled people continue to be spoken for by non-disabled people, ‘experts’ of some form or another (artistic, professional, medical… the lot). Disabled people are ultimately the real experts in their own lives!”

The knee-jerk reaction, assuming that disabled people are somehow unable to express themselves, and their experience, to the ‘outside’ world stifles any form of serious discussion, leaving disabled people relegated to “a sea of cliches that continue to hamper them.” And importantly, as Grech highlights, “it maintains non-disabled people and society uneducated and deprived, when they can learn so much from and share with disabled people, as friends, partners, colleagues, customers… human beings packed with life and agency… to curb the obsession with difference.”

A pertinent comment in the video itself brings this matter into stark perspective.

“People speak of ‘special needs’,” one member of Breaking Limits says, “but it’s not accurate to say that my needs are ‘special’. I have the exact same needs as everyone else… the only thing that differentiates me from non-disabled people is how I cater to these needs.”

In comments to MaltaToday, Breaking Limits member Ronald Balzan, cuts to the heart of the matter with a clear-as-crystal logical argument.

“Society tends to be ‘afraid’ of difference. But difference is only an ‘issue’ in a society which does not accommodate for this difference effectively. In a society where there is full and adequate physical accessibility, for example, the fact that certain people need to use a wheelchair for them to be mobile, this ‘difference’ would not be an issue at all.”

Rhoda Garland, another member of Breaking Limits, also highlights just how dehumanising certain pre-conceptions about disability can be.

“The idea that disabled people are essentially ‘different’ seems to be very powerful among non-disabled people, unfortunately. People don’t realise that the feelings, thought and ambitions of a disabled person are identical to their own.”

It’s the very idea that ‘disabled’ and ‘non-disabled’ are often perceived as two distinct categories is an integral part of the problem. This is, in fact, an integral part of Shaun Grech’s critical research, which he describes as being “about questioning and challenging monolithic views and perceptions of disability… Because disability just like anything, is heterogeneous, fluid, subjective, multiple and shifts any fixities in thought and practice,” Grech says, adding that what is needed in our discourse is “openness, dynamism and a notion of disability re(negotiated) over space, time and inter-subjectivities. Because ultimately, life itself is not monolithic. Instead, it is complex, fragmented and diverse, and this is to be celebrated.”

Another social hang-up that hampers the dignity of disabled people is the ever-pervasive culture of the ‘poor unfortunate’ that they’re burdened with. Perhaps more immediately familiar to most as the figure of ‘il-miskin,’ the V.18 video made it clear enough that disabled people have had enough of being characterised as such.

“I don’t like it when the church or the government portray us as objects of pity, even when it comes to fundraising activities because I think there are other ways to raise funds without having to constantly portray us as objects of pity,” Breaking Limits member Christian Camilleri says, while also expressing hope that V.18 “will help change this old-school mentality.”

More pertinently, however, Camilleri insists that it is grassroots organisations of and run by disabled people, such as Breaking Limits itself, which need to be pro-active and step up to improve the lives of disabled people on the island.

Rhoda Garland echoes this sentiment.

“I think that however irritating it is though, the exposure, or lack of it, with respect to disabled people (especially in Malta) accounts for most of the lack of understanding that goes on, and until disabled people start to make a noise – like we are – there will be little change… we need to be seen as more stroppy and less msieken!” Read more

© MaltaToday/Teodor Reljic

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