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Disabling lives, stifled voices

It has been four years since I have been living in Manchester, a place I often resis­ted, sometimes I felt resisted me. I remain proud of my cultural heritage and am irritated by those bent on bad mouth­ing Malta wherever they go – some in search of the promised land, some disgruntled, others yearning the ‘warm’ embrace of the coloniser – a desire built on little more than allegiance to a football team.

Despite all the statements of good intent, Malta wants to be ‘disability free’
- Shaun Grech

But not all is perfect. The field of disability is one where my country is as cruel as it is stifling and oppressive. The narratives of my disabled friends in Malta remain the same: no voice, physical confinement, inadequate services, discrimination, joblessness, inability to live independently, limited educational opportunities, impending poverty.

The stories of their families are no different: institutional bullying, ignorance and the frustration at seeing their loved ones treated as second-class citizens.

Malta epitomises disablism in its purest form. Disabled people are only marginally visible in the public space, and when they are, only as objects of pity and charity, of subservient gratitude.

When faced with criticism, policymakers and service providers are always quick to retaliate with the usual glass-half-full rhetoric: “Look at what we have achieved rather than what we haven’t”.

Yes, some things have changed, as they should, but what disabled people think of these ‘initiatives’ is never heard, and when they complain, they are ignored or silenced.

But you are hardly surprised, be­cause the voices of disabled people have never mattered, bar for the sporadic charitable pleas in Christmastime. The disabled person creates anxiety, cast into the space of the ‘needy’ and ‘fragile’ – the ‘not quite like others, not quite normal’.

And the body of the disabled person is met by existential unease because many still have no idea how to talk to and be with disabled people, because these realities rarely come together.

How many disabled people roam Malta’s streets as they please? Where are they in supermarkets, university, businesses, bars and buses? This is not due to individual limitations, but to an environment that refuses to include disability physically and attitudinally. Despite all statements of ‘good’ intent, Malta wants to be ‘disability free’.

But this does not surprise me judging by the inability of many to engage with the notion of racial diversity, a country that is as xenophobic as it is racist.

For those who will feel irritated by the comparison, much of the disability movement emerged from and gained strength by linking its cause (oppression) to that of other movements, including the feminist and race movements.

This is exactly what the move­­ment started in the 1980s in the UK – politicise disability – reacting against charity, medicalisation and pathologising, moving instead to a discourse of rights. Disabled people took to the streets, they still do.

I recently read in The Times the satisfaction expressed by the Malta Federation of Organisations of Persons with Disability at the news of the ratification of the United Na­tions Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability.

While this is laudable, what is not mentioned is that Malta is one of the last countries in the world to ratify it. I find it hard to believe that disabled people will be able to seek redress in a country of such impunity, where the culture of redress has never really existed, whether out of fear, or the ingrained knowledge that things won’t change anyway.

Malta struggles with a culture of protest, at least for any cause that is right and does not involve raging bus drivers or racists. Small NGOs still try to beat the odds, but strength comes with numbers, not only the online ones.

Have there been no injustices in Malta? I don’t think so, because my friends’ stories are replete with renditions of daily abuse, in particular the insidious kind of psychological ‘violence’ borne out of ignorance. Or is it the fact that ‘protest’ and ‘disability’ do not go together?

My friend Clifford Portelli recent­ly spoke through The Times about the crisis after the spinal injury unit closed, leaving people without adequate rehabilitation, compromising health and movement. This story had until now gone unheard and undocumented.

The silence following Portelli’s story, though, was what really brought this home. Is the National Council for Persons with Disability following up on this? Why hasn’t there been a single press release from any organisation?

Why has no politician even bothered to issue a statement? I asked Cliff how he felt about all this. He replied: “No one talks to you and they ignore you, you feel a zero, not only me but also other people with spinal injuries. Politicians ignore whatever they want, and then they come crawling at election time”.

I do not write this in the aspiration that Malta will ever become like the UK. But I do believe we have a lot to learn from each other.

A disability movement of disabled people, one with teeth, is urgently needed in Malta – a movement that is independent, inclusive of families, collaborating with partners. We need one that fights and keeps governments in check.

I see glimmers of hope in disabled individuals like Portelli to fight for others, but unless he gathers concerted action without fear, his efforts will remain limited.

Politicians and citizens need to wake up to the idea of disabled people as consumers, partners, voters, citizens with rights.

[email protected]

Shaun Grech is a research fellow at the Research Institute for Health and Social Change, Manchester Metropolitan University.

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