Telling our own stories

A man sits in a chair holding a microphone. He is casually dressed and has a clean-shaven appearance.

Liz Porter’s Storytelling workshop on 29 November 2013 at St Mark’s Community Centre in Beckton.

Artistic Director Ju Gosling aka ju90 writes: Today we hosted a storytelling workshop by Liz Porter at St Mark’s Community Centre in Beckton. Liz began the workshop with an excerpt from Wednesday’s show, Learning to See, which described her arrival at a ‘special’ boarding school. In response, a number of participants felt moved to share something of their own backgrounds and histories.

For disabled people, telling our own stories is an experience that is fraught with difficulty. This may difficulty may be cultural, in communities where disability is hidden away and seen as shameful – although in my experience, that includes the UK.

More often, though, it is a question of choice. In all sorts of ways, disabled people are continually being made to provide every detail of our personal lives for scrutiny on demand — what I called in 1997 ‘My Not-So-Secret Life as a Cyborg’.

Class and cash are no protection against this constant invasion of privacy; just try traveling on a train, let alone a plane, as a wheelchair user without being forced to provide all sorts of personal information first. We are all storytellers, whether we like it or not.

And yet there are all sorts of difficult and painful feelings that may accompany the inevitable embarrassment and humiliation of being forced to re-tell our personal histories to the medical and social care professions/government agencies/every petty bureaucrat imaginable. Impairments may be associated with personal tragedies, or with rejection and hardships. They are also very seldom easy to explain, not least to people we’ve never met before, and who have no understanding of what we are talking about.

Despite this, though, we are seen as public property, with every stranger also feeling entitled to stop you in the street and ask ‘What’s wrong with you?’ ‘If I answer truthfully that “My eldest cat went missing on Bonfire Night and is now presumed dead”, they simply look baffled.

There is something very helpful, as well as empowering, then, about being able to tell your personal history in an atmosphere of support and understanding, as took place today. But these personal histories are, of course, of wider importance; they are social histories too.

Over the past year, Together! has been working with Eastside Community Heritage and Newham Disabled Reps Forum to devise a project to record and archive the history of disabled people in Newham. This will include the history of Newco – the old ‘blind workshop’ — as well as of the much-mourned Greenhill Day Centre and of our own ‘special’ schools.

The Reps Forum will be hosting the final of our St Mark’s festival events on Tuesday 10 December from 11am-3pm, where stories from the above institutions will form the centrepiece of the programme. We hope this is just the first stage on our journey to preserve the history of disabled people in Newham – the most diverse community on the planet – as part of our Paralympic Legacy.

Our stories do need to be told – by us, in our own, unique way – not hidden away, forgotten and invisible. Only then will disabled people cease to be hidden away too.