Sunday, March 3, 2024

‘What Bothers Me More Is The Constant Assumption That I’m Dumb.’ How Are You Today… Disability Advocate Grace Stratton

Grace Stratton is a power house, there’s no two ways about it. She’s currently studying at university and she’s also the Director of Inclusive Fashion Company and Marketing Agency All Is for All, which she helped found. Her learned experience of being a wheelchair user after being born with cerebral palsy has given her a tremendous sense of purpose when it comes to being a disability advocate and one of her latest projects has been helping produce the Stuff podcast What’s Wrong With You? hosted by Stuff digital producer Olivia Shivas and Paralympian Rebecca Dubber. The podcast covers themes including parenting, travel, dating and sex, leadership and media representation. It’s one of the many ways Grace is working to change the conversations around disability. She talks to Capsule about looking for the opportunities rather than focusing on the limitations, how she handles the weird questions from people and why she wants things to get better for the next generation.

How are you? How’s your lockdown?
Oh, y’know. It’s pretty okay. I wouldn’t mind a coffee but that’s a pretty minor ailment to have, so that’s okay. Hopefully Level 3 isn’t too far away and we can at least get some takeaways! I’m studying at the moment and online is tricky for that – I think it’s more motivating when you have to go somewhere to learn, rather than learn at home. But I’m almost finished. I’m thinking of doing my Masters’; hopefully Covid-19 will be more under control by the time that happens.

When it comes to your study, your involvement with the podcast What’s Wrong With You? and your work in All is For All, I feel like you’re really good at framing the work you do in the disability sector as there are plenty of opportunities to make things better, as opposed to feeling frustrated that there are a lot of limitations that still exist. How do you maintain that positive stance on things?
Fundamentally, we’re in the business of providing opportunities and platforms. But if we take a step back, I was able to start All is for All because I have certain privileges in my life – I was able to be educated; I’m from a family who was very supportive, I live with white privilege… so I’m aware that the lens I bring is formed by those privileges.

In terms of maintaining a positive view, there’s a lot more work to do with disability, especially in that intersectional space, in order to achieve equity. The reason for that is because we still conceptualise disability so negatively. I was watching a show on Netflix the other day – a medical drama, to numb my brain – and they had this episode about a guy who was in a wheelchair. The whole episode was him going ‘I can’t function for my wife, I can’t be what she needs, I can’t do this, I can’t do that…’ and I was like ‘Ugh, I can’t even watch a show and not be constantly reminded [that disability] is something we’re “constantly trying to overcome.”’ The podcast is all about that reframing.

When we talk about disability, we do it through a very medical lens; we never talk about disability as a part of culture, or a person’s worldview. If we did that, I think we’d be able to make a lot of change.

A lot of getting older is unlearning the negative lessons we subconsciously were taught while we were growing up – whether it’s about our bodies, our sizes, etc. What lessons did you need to ‘unlearn’?
I think we’re all still unlearning them – we’ll forever be unlearning them. The theoretical team is ‘internalised ableism’. To be honest, I think that, again, it all comes down to who you are raised around. In the parenting episode of What’s Wrong With You?, the parent we talk to, Tiana Epati, is a really good example of a parent who admits that disability isn’t something you immediately accept but she’s going to ensure that she raises her son to be the best he can be and doesn’t place on him the idea that ‘it’s not great that you’re disabled.’ And a lot of people don’t do that consciously but there’s sometimes this subconscious undertone when you’re growing up that ‘oh, you’re not this, you’re not that, you should be doing this, why don’t you do more physio so you can walk.’

That wasn’t my experience growing up because it’s not how my parents thought. They always wanted me to be my best physically so I did physio, but I never felt that I shouldn’t be disabled. All of the messages that made me feel like that were coming from other places in the world.

If you think about disabled children specifically, one of the things we do in society a lot is we make them seem really special or we uplift them a lot, and we say ‘oh look at this child, she doesn’t let that hold her back’ all that palaver. It is really important to build young disabled people’s confidence but sometimes we do that because we’re trying to make ourselves feel better about them being disabled, rather than as a genuine way of encouraging their growth and development.

Rebecca Dubber and Olivia Shivas are the hosts of the brilliant podcast, What’s Wrong With You

So, hopefully, the podcast will be something that prospective parents can look to and use to help them along the way. I was born before the internet, so my parents didn’t have the same resources – it’s not like they could just Google it; I don’t know where they got information about what my life was going to be like. But it was all statistical information or health-outcome based information.

But often, when a child is disabled, all we give people is statistical information or health-outcome based information, which all may not happen. When we talk about disability, we do it through a very medical lens; we never talk about disability as a part of culture, or a person’s worldview. If we did that, I think we’d be able to make a lot of change.

I find doing the work cathartic because when things bother me, you can either be bothered or you can be part of the solution in some form.

One theme that comes up a lot in the podcast is that when you’re a wheelchair user or you live with a disability, you have to deal with a lot of questions from random strangers – sometimes they’re well-meaning questions, sometimes they’re not. How do you handle that level of interest?
You become weirdly used to it. As an example, I always take the bus into uni or work. Recently my mum got a new job and so she was taking the bus at the same time as me. The bus drivers are varied in terms of their disability competency… and some of them are not great. They might ignore you, or not help you, or speak to you really patronisingly. As well as the constant interest, what bothers me more is the constant assumption that I’m dumb. It happens most every day on the bus. I might have the odd day when the driver is fine but either way, I just move through the day. You learn to ignore it, but for my mum… she’ll go up and talk to the driver and be like ‘what are you doing?!’

Part of disability is choosing who you’re going to educate. Because if you choose to educate everyone throughout the day, you’d be using all your energy trying to explain and justify yourself to people. So, you either learn to let it go over your head and not annoy you or you choose to explain to people. But the other side of that coin is that… it’s tricky, because you don’t want random people coming up to you on the street or speaking to you really slowly but when I meet someone or I’m starting a new role or something, I think it is important that if people want to ask, that they felt like they can.

My way of dealing with these things is through working. I find doing the work cathartic because when things bother me, you can either be bothered or you can be part of the solution in some form. So, I see working as being able to be part of that solution. So that’s why I do it so much. When people speak to me like I’m dumb, I just remind myself that I’m probably smarter than all of them. I just truck on.

So many people fought for us to be where we are and so it’s our journey to keep that going, because if we didn’t then the next generation will miss out.

You have a really strong sense of purpose.
I often think about that old saying about how ‘you stand on the shoulders of giants’. A lot of the opportunities I’ve been able to grab a hold of, for myself or for the people that work with us, have been because of prior advocacy. I have challenges at university but it’s not like I had to advocate for myself to be able to go to university; my fundamental place there wasn’t questioned. I see it as my duty and my responsibility to carry that on. And that’s me personally; some other disabled people may not want to do advocacy and that’s fine.

Especially with cerebral palsy, there’s not really a reason that someone gets cerebral palsy so there has to be some sort of calling or some sort of reason for me to be disabled. I was born 10 weeks early but tonnes of babies are born that early and aren’t disabled, so there must have been a reason. That’s why I do it. So many people fought for us to be where we are and so it’s our journey to keep that going, because if we didn’t then the next generation will miss out. The idea is that the next generation will build on that and we can be like ‘Wow, they got further than we ever did.’ That’s the point.

For more information on the What’s Wrong With You podcast, click here. The podcast is made with the support of NZ on Air & Sponsored by EveryHuman.

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