Interview with Michelle Daley

Recently Miro Griffiths, Teaching Fellow in Disability Studies, interviewed Michelle Daley, prominent activist. This interview was initially recorded for our MA Disability Studies students, but we are now making it available online (with Michelle’s permission). Michelle and Miro discuss disability activism and intersectionality. There are no subtitles (please note that we are looking into this for the future). But there is a transcript, which is below.

Michelle Daley discusses disability activism and intersectionality

Dr Miro Griffiths, Teaching Fellow in Disability Studies at the University of Leeds, interviews Michelle Daley, a prominent activist. The interview explores disability activism and intersectionality. Transcription is available below.

Posted by Centre for Disability Studies, University of Leeds on Thursday, December 13, 2018


Transcript (verbatim):

Miro Griffiths: So, hello Michelle

Michelle Daley: Hello Miro

Miro Griffiths: Hello, it’s good to see you. So this is just an opportunity for us to talk through the topic of intersectionality. And I’m doing that because students are looking at that as part of the module this week, and I just thought it would be an excellent opportunity to have a great disabled activist like yourself just highlighting some of that kind of stuff, er, and kind of drawing on what’s most important to you within that topic. Does that sound OK?

Michelle Daley: Sounds fine

Miro Griffiths: OK

Michelle Daley: Not sure about the great activist, but hey, go for it [laughs]

Miro Griffiths: You are, you are! So in terms of just kind of most people, you know, in the room may not have come across your work and your activism, could you just say who you are and just a little but about your background?

Michelle Daley: Yeah, as you know, you’ve known me for a really long time Miro – before I had grey hair, right? [laughs] I’ve been working in the sort of disability issue, the Disabled People’s Movement, ooh, I think I started in the late 80s – late 90s? I first started out doing advocacy for a local Disabled People’s Organisation, which was great experience in terms of developing an understanding about what Disabled People’s Movement’s about, and that’s when I really learnt about the social model of disability, and how to empower other disabled people. And along the journey I then was appointed to a United Kingdom advisory group on disability equality, so yeah, disability equality, Equality 2025, and the Independent Living Scrutiny Group, and that’s where I met yourself, and from there I met other like-minded disabled people as well, and that was great, because that provided an opportunity to do strategic work with central government, and gave you a different platform really. So along that way I’ve also met up with other individuals as I said, I met Eleanor and we formed Sisters of Frida, which I’ll talk about later, and I’m currently now, I’m one of the trustees for Independent Living Alternative, which is a personal assistance service, supporting disabled people to really be in control of their support. I’ve just finished my appointment with Alliance for Inclusive Education, where I then took up an interim role as an interim director – I could go on and on! I’ll also say I’ve done a website, and I launched that last year. And that really was to bring together the experience of black disabled people in Britain, because I felt that much of the stories, you had to go over to America – before I forget I’ll give you the website, it’s and I’ve got different stuff on there. I will stop there.

Miro Griffiths: Well … we’ll put a link up on the learning environment for the students. That’ll be helpful as well, particularly when you’re thinking about maybe your ethics on the questions, yeah, maybe one of those kind of links. So, Michelle, you know, you said kind of you got involved in activism from the 80s onwards. What’s kind of, you know – from your perspective, what has really been kind of significant changes in that process?

Michelle Daley: So I – I think what drew me to Disabled People’s Movement and to work in the Disabled People’s Movement – it was a friend, actually, and I’ll give you the background because that will help you understand what changed. So at the time when I got involved the Disability Discrimination Act hadn’t passed, so it was… was it passed? No, it had passed actually, so I’m getting my dates wrong, it had passed, I’d finished uni actually, and I was trying to look for work at that time. So I was able to kind of picture that journey from there, and my first appointment was working with an organisation called Action on Rights of Disabled People in Newham. And many –

Miro Griffiths: That’s in London, isn’t it?

Michelle Daley: Yeah, it’s one of the London boroughs. I remember doing some amazing, amazing work around campaigning for rights, and at that time funding was very different. You could get core funding from the local authority, and also there was lots of work around supporting disabled people to become empowered and being able to exercise their rights. So if you ask me now what has changed, what we are seeing a lot of change with I think is austerity, coming with cuts, but also not just the cuts – resources have been put in a very different way, so the London – just flicking back a bit, the borough where I’d done my work was very progressive in terms of inclusive education, access, it’s one of the boroughs that host the Olympics, so it was really progressive in terms of supporting disabled people to have opportunities in that way. But what we’re seeing now is things are not so progressive, particularly when you look around at the cuts, what’s happening, disabled people are having to fight for care packages. In terms of the way people are having to access services, a lot of the ways if a person doesn’t have access to another empowered disabled person, they’re less likely to know their rights. And we’re witnessing the dying of disabled people’s organisation, which is very sad because those organisations were really what gave many disabled people like myself opportunities in the career market. I truly believe if it wasn’t for the Disabled People’s Movement, I don’t think I would have developed the career I’ve developed today, because it was able to nurture, able to understand what adjustments were in terms of how I’d get through the – you know, think about my own support needs in work. But also it provided work that many other organisations wouldn’t provide opportunities to disabled people, because of the way many organisations perceived disabled people in the workforce. So that, I think, is a big difference for many of the young disabled people coming through and finishing school, university, whatever it may be, it’s quite scary. Where do they get many of their opportunities to develop in the workplace, if many of the organisations which would have supported young disabled people who were the least likely to get employment, they’re going to struggle with it today because their associates are not there.

Miro Griffiths: And I think that’s a really powerful thing, highlighting issues around kind of the importance of relationships with one another, in terms of you know like kind of advocacy and supporting each other to kind of be involved in these different debates around disability rights. And then you’ve kind of highlighted the kind of, the strains on the activism and movement, you know, in terms of funding issues, of not being listened to and platforms, and so on. And because we were going to talk about the essence of intersectionality, I’m just wondering, you know, how does that affect where the movement is in terms of it’s trying to build collaborations with people from various different backgrounds, and trying to support people to understand, you know, who they are and how their experiences are reflected in their activism. You know, what would you say to that?

Michelle Daley: Could you just explain yourself a bit more Miro, because I’m not sure I clearly understand.

Miro Griffiths: Sure

[a few words unclear here due to noise 07:40]

Miro Griffiths: in terms of intersectionality, and recognising that we’ve got, you know, there are different aspects of our identity, and that kind of effects us in different ways. What I’m interested in is does the movement reflect that? Does it support people to, you know, talk about and experience their issues of say gender or ethnicity, as well as disability? Or does –

Michelle Daley: I would like to say yes, but the reality is no. And I think we can see that the presence of difference in the movement is not as good as it should be. And the reason I’d like to say yes because the disability movement itself has struggled to really get its voice out there in many ways, just because of how society perceives disabled people generally. And I think in recent years, we are starting to see presence of disabled people from different backgrounds starting to come out in the movement and speaking out. When I first went into the Disabled People’s Movement, as I said it was in the late 90s, it was very very rare that you would hear the experience of black disabled people speaking out as much as you could now, and again people from LGBTQI communities and so on. And it’s nowhere as good as it should be, but – and I know at that time we had people like Millie Hill, Nasa Begum, er, Ossie Stuart, those guys, they were trying to push things through. And I think at the moment, although I – I think there’s slight progression. Now on the agenda you’ll start seeing certain topics on the agenda when before those topics weren’t on the agenda. And I think that’s because intersectionality for the Disabled People’s Movement is pretty much new in terms of – as a theory coming out, and I think we are still getting to grips with, or understanding how our different intersects overlap and can oppress and we can have inequality because of this. And I think as a term it needs pushing through and we are seeing more and more people speaking about it, I think that – well, hopefully, I’m trying to be positive on this, there will be some change. Because I was out yesterday, I was at the Black Girl Fest. And it was interesting, there was a few black disabled women at this event, and I think what was missing was the disabled people’s political angle in there.

Miro Griffiths: I see

Michelle Daley: And it would have been important that Disabled People’s Movement connect to some of these wider events that are happening as well. Because sometimes it’s that disabled people may – from whatever group they may identify themselves with, may not be drawn to Disabled People’s Movement, but are drawn to other groups, and we need to find ways of how we can attract and empower people in those settings, cause whilst they may identify themselves as a disabled person, they may not understand what the wider issues are for disabled people in the way from the political agenda from the social model perspective.

Miro Griffiths: That’s such an important point. So it’s almost about thinking how does the Disabled People’s Movement reflect on its own practices around kind of including people. Equally how do we get those narratives out there to other wider groups, without actually – they’re also thinking about the intersectionality of say, you know, ethnicity, gender, disability and sexual orientation. That’s such a powerful and really important issue, and I’m just wondering – you said before that the likes of Ossie and Millie and so on talking about, you know, not having those opportunities to try to advance those discussions. Why do you think that was the case?

[a bit of unclear talking over each other 11:50]

Miro Griffiths: Why was there that kind of lack of recognition that this was such an important issue for the movement to embrace and to talk about?

Michelle Daley: I think that the Disabled People’s Movement, the kind of key issue at the time would have been about the disability, the barriers that people were experiencing. Now as black disabled people coming in with another issue on top of that, it was still struggling at those times, legislation wasn’t even in place. We’re now bringing issues around race, gender, and all those other topics. I think it was still trying to break through on the issue around disability, and this is not an excuse, and I’m just trying to kind of answer the question in the best way I can think about it. And I think when we think about any kind of group, and it’s a thing I want to pick up, it might be – I don’t know if I’m going to answer it later on – and I think if we think about what Kimberley Crenshaw speaks about when she speaks about intersectional erasure, it’s because of the way groups are set up, and the disability group was kind of originally about disability, and what happens is those other issues will become erased from the conversation, because the conversation at that time was purely about disability. And I think people like Ossie Stewart, Millie Hill and Nasa Begum were bringing in new topics which the movement hadn’t even maybe heard about, but the people who were leading it often at that time were white disabled men. So we’re talking about, thinking about all of those disabled people who had got their own opportunities, and not thinking about their own privileges, and not really understanding or recognising, or it may not have been even in their scope of thinking, you know, there’s other groups who were disabled, other groups who were having these experiences. So I think in terms of trying to answer the question, I think its the amount – it’s the erasure as Kimberley Crenshaw talks about, the intersectional erasure of how groups erase certain experiences, just because it’s not within their agenda. It’s not their priority, it’s not their thinking.

Miro Griffiths: OK. I think this is really fascinating, and I’m wondering – in terms of intersectional erasure then, is that also to do – do you mean it in terms of, you know, from your perspective the movement erases those discussions, or the individual also erases it in a way to actually then feel included and feel like they can participate?

Michelle Daley: I don’t think it’s as simple as that, and I think it’s about how any group sets up, and what a group is based on. And I think it’s – you have to first understand who are the leaders in those groups. What are the agenda of the leaders in those groups. So it’s not as cut and dried as is it the individual – I think it’s both. I think it’s tied together, and I think it’s based on people that experience an individual’s agendas as well. And also it’s most dealings are dealt with on an individual basis, rather than how we think of things collectively. So it’s what happens is we – and they’re common problems, they’re deadly problems, because if we don’t think about how we exclude certain people, because of their different identities, what we actually do is we further ostracise people from the movement. And then the basis in that particular group will just be the same, and what you do, you make it harder and harder for people to come in, and then when a certain voice does come in, who are trying to raise an agenda about an issue that is excluded, that person then can be seen either as a pain the backside or annoyance.

Miro Griffiths: Yeah, like a disruption to the –

Michelle Daley: Yeah, they become obstructions, yeah

Miro Griffiths: And I suppose – and you know, going back to that reference around, you know, those positions of power and influence within the movement have tended to be occupied by a certain characteristic set. Is that still happening now?

Michelle Daley: I think very much so in many ways. I think we can look around, and how we can tell that is by we can see in the movement the names who have been the prominent names, and those prominent names have been around when I started up, and you must know many of the same people yourself Miro, and they still hold prominent positions. That’s OK in many ways, as long as you’re up-skilling a new generation.

Miro Griffiths: Yeah. I think the danger is then is that, you know, when you’re building a kind of legacy, and you may not deliberately be excluding a group, but you happen to do that through your agenda, and then you’re going to move on. You want somebody to reflect you in the – in that next position, don’t you, so then you – these issues then don’t get raised.

Michelle Daley: Yes. Another way of kind of just thinking about this, when I have this conversation, is if we think about the Disabled People’s Movement as a party, inviting your friends to a party, and the best way I can explain it is when we’re doing our list to invite, you go through all the list of the people that you know, and then you might go through a list of people who you haven’t spoken to for a long time. And then you might usually say “plus one”. But what you do when you do that is you bring in new people all the time. And those new people that you bring in all the time, you hope that you can share agendas of, you know, expand your network of friends, that’s how life goes. And I think what we haven’t done though in the movement, is we bring new people in, but we haven’t brought them to the table with us, so that we can make sure the legacy continues. Like with our friendships, we make sure that the legacies of our friendships continue. Cause when we have friends, you bring them to your table and then make sure that you remain contact with them, and you expand our friends in a certain way, and the knowledge base of our friends and so on. They’re like cushions in many ways, we bounce off of one another with friends, and I think we need to kind of think about that as an energy in some way we apply to groups and movements, and the Disabled People’s Movement are no different. I think the struggle with the Disabled People’s Movement is that there’s other factors that do make it more difficult is – is the access needs, there is also with the movement, and so I think what you tend to find is the leaders of the movement tend to be the ones who – I might get shot for saying this – who seem to be able – who can manoeuvre themselves through the system, who are in positions of power, who’ve got certain privileges. And that makes it – cause if you’ve got the resources to make those things happen, but what we do need to do is, to go back to our party, how do we invite people to the party, and how do we exclude people when they come to the party. When we have a party, you make sure you have enough food to give people at the party, you have the resources, you’ve got your numbers, and that’s what we need to kind of apply to the result – to the movement, how do we make sure we’ve got the resources to up-skill a new generation, as you said, the legacy continues. Cause we can never think that the movement isn’t going to be needed. It’s always going to be needed until we get to a utopian society, and we’re not going to have that right now. So we will always need it.

Miro Griffiths: And I think that kind of like leads me nicely into the question around, you know, the collective network of Sisters of Frida, and I’m just wondering if you could talk a little bit about what that is, and what that provides

Michelle Daley: Yeah, and I think – as you know I’m one of the founders and I’m currently one of the directors for Sisters of Frida. Sisters of Frida really came about as an experimental group of disabled women. And it really is about trying not to do the intersectional erasure, as you will be able to tell from the website, the make-up of the women on there. And it is about really making sure we really truly embrace the intersectionality of disabled women. And it is about making sure the movement address those topics of disabled women, which is very different from the experience of disabled men. And one of the things I would proudly say that Sisters of Frida does, I think, in many ways, it did push forward that agenda about what intersectionality was, and getting the word out there, in the same way, you know, Kimberley Williams Crenshaw was a black woman who introduced the theory, and I think Sisters of Frida [a few words unclear 21:10] only for that we really pushed that theory through in making sure we understand what intersectionality means. And we’ve seen that a lot really, people talk about it – it’s becoming more of a known, common word now, and to answer your question, yeah, I think it is changing the way we start thinking about the issues of disabled people in the movement. Just because I think Sisters of Frida is a good example of that, because of the mixture of women who are in the group.

Miro Griffiths: OK, and we’re coming towards the end of the interview now, and I just wondered if there’s any kind of final thought or comment? It doesn’t have to be, no pressure there, but is there anything kind of final, kind of clear-cut, you know, concise comment that you want to make to everybody in the room, just to kind of, you know, echo what you’ve been talking about, or add –

Michelle Daley: Yeah, I think when – I think what’s really important is when we’re talking about a topic around disability, I think in terms of how we think about it, is making sure that we think about disability is not a homogeneous issue. And I think that – I didn’t bring in Patricia Hill Collins. Now she expands on Kimberley Williams Crenshaw, and she looks at all the stuff around class and gender, and there’s other bits, so I think we definitely – and it helps just as well to – it helps us to recognise what manages our privileges, and I think if we can accept and recognise our privileges, we can understand how other people face oppression. And I think if we’re looking at Disabled People’s Movement, it’s about recognising that we can all share a common characteristic, and our common characteristic is the fact that both my and yourself are disabled individuals, but there are characteristics about each of us that might put us in a different privileged position, or areas in our lives. And I think that’s the point that I hope that I – the message that I can put across from doing this interview with you is that I’ll leave by saying that we may or may not share common characteristics, but we need to make sure that we can help to eradicate where people don’t have opportunities or privileges and that when some men hold those privileges, how we can make sure we bring them in.

Miro Griffiths: Brilliant. Thanks Michelle.

Michelle Daley: No worries

Miro Griffiths: I’ll stop recording now, but thanks very much. Thank you.