Independent Access Consultant
‘Finding my wings’
Can you remember what people felt you should and should not do when you were younger?
Because of my impairments and disability, my parents believed I shouldn’t risk take; that I should remain in a safe space.
I have never wanted to be in a safety zone. I’ve always been rather rebellious. I was always the one on a course, or in a group situation who would rebel, perhaps as a backlash to people’s expectations of me and I, additionally would draw people along with me. I would and still do sometimes deliberately sabotage situations if I don’t think I’m going to get anything out of them.
I love Brighton where I live, I feel I can spread my wings here. There’s the freedom here to be who you want to be, to be creative and experimental without being judged. I seem to inhabit bird metaphors. I need to stretch, to fly
Tell me more about the flying
As a child I spent many years in a metal body brace, like a trapped bird in a cage. Then in my early 20s I spent 3 years in a Frida Kahlo type full body cast and then plastic jackets following radical surgery.
I had to be blanket bathed: all my independence stripped away, having to rely on others, carers. I couldn’t wait to get out of all that. As soon as I shed my last jacket, I emerged from my ‘chrysalis’ as a tiger moth, not a butterfly but a moth with teeth. I took flight, seeking something meaningful to get my incisors into. I’ve gone down my own flight path, flitting, seeking the light and I guess that is what has underpinned my work – the need to find something challenging, exciting and ultimately rewarding. I’ve been running my business for 20 years, trying to make a difference.
So how does that Moth operate and what do you show and not show of yourself?
I like to play the trump card sometimes with my disability. People don’t expect what they get. I consciously dress up in a flamboyant way, expressing my creativity, so I present in this way and then pull out the trump card.
The first meeting I had at a leading architectural practice, the project architect, who had been talking to me, said to everyone assembled that we were still ‘waiting for the access consultant’ and I balked back, ‘that’s me’.
He visibly recoiled. He was shocked and my teeth were out. And then I went in and sabotaged the beautiful aesthetic of the meeting room with its state-of-the-art blue chairs: ‘I can’t sit on these chairs, I need something else’ and so the whole office had to move around for me. I said ‘Access starts right here’. I loved that. I’ve been told that I’m rather direct and this is often why I get employed. That, and my sense of fun and mischief.
I never preach. I try to get clients to see things from a different perspective to make them aware, often in an amusing way – pedal bin in an accessible WC, now that’s challenging!
I don’t tow the line. My role as access consultant puts me in a powerful position, where I can change things and make a difference. It’s empowering as a disabled person to be helping to break down barriers, forcing some of this country’s leading designers to revisit their grand designs. Because I won’t be compromised. I have to start off from a strong position and bargain my way through. If I start off being tame, I’d just get squashed.
Do you see yourself as a leader?
No I don’t. A leader’s someone who influences other people, that takes things to somewhere new, makes people think differently, well in this respect I do that… well, yes I do!
When the head of major projects at a national museum left to direct another large cultural institution she said to me that I was the one person who had had the most effect on her. We’d had a great relationship over the years, not always easy. I had spent a lot of time digging my heels in and she had grown to respect that. I think she admired where I’d come from, that I’d picked myself up from the scrap heap, from that incarceration, that jacket, and carved this career for myself and she experienced me as influential.
Why do you think that more disabled people are not in position of leadership?
Sometimes it’s particularly difficult, if you have had to be cared for. It takes a lot, sometimes a long journey, particularly if you still have to be cared for, to feel independent, to feel sure of who you are; to feel powerful enough to believe in yourself and impose your views on others. You have to be confident enough to convince people. You really have to be prepared to fight your corner. If you are in any way doubtful of yourself, you’ll get pushed aside. This is particularly true in the building industry, it’s a really tough place to be.
Everyone on that design team is fighting for what they believe is right. They are always trying to keep costs down and access may be the first thing to go, or at least that was the case about ten years ago.
Access and inclusive design if done well is not costly. I think when they see me coming, they think ‘costs, compromise….’ It has changed though and more people are signing up to inclusive design. In many ways, this actually reflects where disabled people are. We are much more visible and included. A flock of moths with teeth……tho’ we still have a bit of a fight on our hands…….