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This land is our land – stories we tell ourselves about disability and why they matter

Radiate's first event of 2013 was very well-attended. We heard from Andrew McDonald, Chief Executive of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. Andrew has Parkinson’s and has also experienced cancer. He talked about managing his disability and ill-health health in the context of his senior Civil Service career.

Andrew outlined some of the dominant narratives about disability and ill-health, including the 'tragic' and the 'battling' tropes. He said: "Compare the way we tell stories about Parkinson's with the way we tell stories around cancer. The sort of stories that one would get, for example, in the popular press around cancer have people battling against the condition. It has brave victories or plucky defeats. The language is very active. It is a battle. Whereas, by contrast, the stories we tell ourselves about Parkinson's are about stoicism, about suffering. They are expressed in terms of passivity for the most part. Now, my contention is that these stories are tremendously powerful in shaping the experience both of those with the condition but also those who are related to people with the condition. They have, in the strict sense of the term, the power to be insidious, to creep into our mind and our perception of individuals in a way which we don't fully appreciate . . .

"We are choosing to accept or fight against these stories every day of our lives when we are either retelling them or accepting them or in some ways endorsing them. The stories we tell ourselves about disability and serious illness have a potency which we all too often neglect. Disability is a more porous and also a more prevalent concept than we often acknowledge. And these are issues, the definition of disability, the support for individuals with disability, the way in which we create workplaces which are genuinely accepting of disability, these are issues which are frankly too important to be left to the disabled.

"These are issues for all of us. We should abandon any notion of disabilities as being a concept over there, of being some sort of land of the disabled. This is an issue for everyone of us in our national community. This land is our land. It matters to all of us."

In conversation with the audience, Andrew also developed the theme of creating our own more varied, more truthful and more positive narratives about the experience of disability and ill-health.

All in all, a fascinating discussion and a topic to which Radiate members will no doubt return.