Notes and thoughts about language

by Alison Parfitt

We, the Walking Interconnections research team, were invited in June 2013 to The Schumacher Institute for Sustainable Systems conference. The conference was part of the Converge project which involves the Schumacher Research Institute and other research bodies across Europe. We were asked to talk about the Walking Interconnections research as a starting point for one of several break out discussion groups.

As you see from the notes of that discussion, (see below), there was a strong plea to be more aware of diversity; diversity amongst the disabled and folk in need of support or particular consideration. Diversity in more ways than you have ever thought of. And for me this is a strong starting point for any sustainability consideration. But what sticks with me now is what is NOT in the notes.

Early on in our group conversation, while talking about umpteen forms of diversity, someone said ‘…the disabled community has the Good, the Bad and the Ugly just like any other community in life …’ or something very like that. I included this communicative phrase (as I saw it) in the write up of our discussion, the notes. However, when I circulated my write up to the others who had been present this phrase was picked on because there were worries that it could be misconstrued, it might be read to mean a statement about physical bodily form etc etc. After more email exchanges and re-drafting that phrase is NOT now in the notes.

So what sticks with me is this sensitivity, walking on egg shells. We can’t use the communicative phrase that was spoken. Of course I know that most of us need to be more sensitive to these issues of labelling, conscious and unconscious etc. I am sure masses will have been discussed and written about all of this. But I just notice, that in everyday life, there is this caution, quite right, yet somehow I also want to be more relaxed and communicative with language.



A New Contract for Sustainability conference includes Walking Interconnections

The Schumacher Institute for Sustainable Systems  invited Walking Ingterconnections to describe our research for a discussion group workshop at a June conference, A New Contract for Sustainability.  At the Arnolfin in Bristol on 20 June 2013, this conference was  part of the Schumacher Institute’s Converge project which is described as  Rethinking globalisation in the light of Contraction and CONVERGEnce.  These notes are from our particular workshop.

The discussion began with a short description of our research project  Walking Interconnections: conversations of sustainability, based at University of Bristol. This action research project  pairs disabled folk and environmental/sustainability folk to go out for walks and share their life experiences, particularly of assessing risk, meeting barriers and obstacles, and being (inter)dependent on others. This is to gain insights or knowledge that could be useful when thinking about how we can all live more sustainably. There are arts methods involved; an agenda about bringing out the wisdom of disabled people who are not, it seems, much linked into sustainability activism as well as interests in walking experience.

This input was merely a prompt, subsequent discussion was not about the project but an airing of feelings , observations and experiences. Here are key phrases from that discussion:

We all have assumptions about who we are and how we are but really we don’t know as much as we might think. People often have less obvious capacities and incapacities. We are often not as we might seem.

 “Different” people (the many who are not ‘the norm’ whatever that is) can make different contributions .  Offering  from  another perspective.

“Different” people are often ‘tarred with one brush’ whereas there is great diversity. And disabled people include  all sorts – folk who can fit in in any sense and those who can, or who choose, not to. All sorts. Diversity. (This remark was made to emphasis diversity and is as much about atitude and not in any way as a description of different or disabled people)

How is the sustainability movement going to include contributions from “different” and disabled people?

If we are going to create/have a paradigm shift  (eg. the transformation that our German colleagues spoke of in the morning? ) are we going to include DIVERSITY from the start?

If you want to test something out … ask the people who find it hard to start with.

As well as the disabled let us not forget the wisdom of the elderly people (who are not valued enough in our society) and the wisdom of , say, child carers.  We currently over value attributes we have, such as intellectual abilities we are born with, at the expense of acquired wisdom, life skills.

Education ‘sucks’ for disabled people (there are often severe disadvantages, not the least because access (in widest sense) is very very poor for disabled and minority groups… (and that would include older people – life long learning etc.)

Society/we need to guard against having a ’ patronising ‘ attitude to the wisdom of different and disabled people.

There is no way forward without interdependence and trust.

There was discussion about the proposal to introduce special and charged parking arrangements in St Pauls, Bristol. This is an area where many charities, who ‘employ’ volunteers have their premises. A parking scheme for residents will not accommodate the comings and goings of volunteers. The envisaged result was described as being like ‘ethnic cleansing’. In the short term this situation is seen as a potential clash between social and environmental needs. In the longer term this proposal can be seen as an important step towards getting the much needed integrated city transport system.

It was suggested that we measure how well we are doing (with moving towards greater sustainability in life or anything …) by understanding how well we accommodate and value the weakest and most vulnerable. 

St Paul wrote ‘When I am weak,  I am strong’

The Walking Interconnections: conversations of sustainability project (described above) involves disabled people and sustainability practitioners sharing life experiences. However, this self selected group at the conference were interested to note that this topic had only attracted people who were themselves disabled or, in one case, a person who lived with a profoundly disabled daughter.  So, folk in this discussion group did not reflect the same ‘mixture’ of people, contributing  their experiences,  as the project does. 


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