5 February, 2023
A commercial flight from the UK to Jordan took less than 5 hours of our lives and, at least this time, we did not require assistance. Sarah Pickthall and I were traveling in excitable bodies high on adrenaline and, having my so-much-more-than-an-access-support-worker, Shyama Persaud, with us meant that we could relax about worrying over long cues, lifting bags, finding food and drink & so much more that the disabled traveler usually has to contend with. We had a good moan about the aircraft being so ill-equipped for the pain body (who on earth decided it was a good idea to model aircraft on a sardine tin?), but arriving to the warm welcome of our project manager extraordinaire, Aya Nabulsi, and an accessible hotel put all that behind us.
Here we were, ready to deliver Sync Arabi – a disabled leadership intensive residential born out of the sweet entanglement of Shubbak, Sync Leadership and Art 2 Heart Palestine.
The next morning we awoke to the news that delegates from Palestine were caught by a crackdown from the far-right government of Israel. Roads leading in and out of the illegally-enclosed Occupied Territories were impenetrable. My imagination took on a bird’s eye view of taxis carrying our colleagues traversing grey lines of asphalt with potholes dotting those neglected essential arteries of mobility and, within those cars, artists not only disabled by their own societies for the divergence of their bodies from the so-called ‘norm’, but also disabled by a colonial project of land enclosure on a mass scale upheld by a sinister and corrupt world order.
Six cars carrying five Deaf & Disabled artists and our colleague Suha Khuffash from Art 2 Heart Palestine,
Wind their way through impenetrable roads,
Reversing and tentatively traversing another route,
finding that blocked;
reversing and tentatively traversing another and another
For those of us waiting in Amman, time was suspended. We needed to find a way to ensure the residential went ahead. Could we deliver it as a hybrid event if they did not make it through? And if they did make it through, how could we best invite rest, ease and recovery? We got to work on scenario planning – if…, then….
And then we saw Suha. And the warm embraces that ensued were so much more than those of co-conspirators finally meeting in the same physical space after months of virtual planning. Ours were embraces laced with a sad elation that, in spite of the mobility rights of Palestinians remaining unhonoured, there was hope still that they may come through, coupled with a defiance that our non-normative bodies would ultimately coalesce through of the multiple barriers we face. Hope grew in our brittle bones and attriting nerves and muscles.
Then, one by one, the Palestine colleagues arrived — not-a-little frazzled by their journeys, and yet so graceful in their greetings. Jordan is less than 200km away from Palestine, and yet some of our colleagues journeys took 12 hours in comparison to our measly 5 from the UK which is over 3500km. Access becomes a dizzying point of crisis when geo-politics and disability intersect.
In a windowless hall with a bright red and yellow carpet crowned by an art deco chandelier, we gathered with our wheelchairs, note-takers, text-to-speech tech, braille books, sign language interpreters, walking sticks and aids and all manner of support we could fathom to thrive in a world that was neither built by or for us. And so, as in so many gatherings of Deaf, Disabled and Neurodivergent, we did what it takes to ensure that this space would be.
The next five days were a heady immersion in Sync Leadership tools and theory, meditations to lean closer into ourselves and each other, and affirmations to find our collective courage. Sometimes consensus settled in. Other times it was clear how disagreeing well made us so much more than the sum of our parts because there was so much more than a common cause that bound us. There was real intrigue and a genuine desire to explore how Deaf and Disabled bodies, in all their variety, can be the sites of true societal transformation.
And perhaps some of the most radical moments we shared were those of joy and laughter — that in spite of it all, we made it together. Etched in every sinew of my body is that first explosion of laughter when the uncensored Sharihan Hadweh exclaimed, after an admittedly too-long introduction from Sarah and myself, ‘Uff! I was wondering when you two would shut up already!’; when Jeries Thalgiah on the bus journey to our welcome dinner commented on his delight that there was not the hint of a smell of another man in the cohort; when we heard of the surreptitious afterhours blind-led tours of Amman which Rawan Barakat had been organising for the group; when Safaa Abbasi and Shaima Mohamed Ali’s laughter reverberated through an overly-sanitised hotel lobby as they skidded in their wheelchairs in an impromptu race to their coaching sessions; when the ever-resourceful Hala Mahfouz rose to the challenge of finding the only fully accessible cafe in Amman for our goodbye shisha; and when Yara Qwareiq and Diana Saleh were reduced to tears of laughter upon finding a common language that traversed Deafness and Blindness on our last night together (and I tell you, the rest of us so wanted to be let in on that language of pleasure activism)
I cannot speak for the others, but I certainly left Sync Arabi giddy with the power of a collective dream. There is a rich countercultural spirit the transnational Deaf, Disabled and Neurodivergent community can offer if only our right to resources were not repeatedly robbed from us. The solution-finding creative intelligence of non-conformity born out of circumstance is a well of wealth our problem-ridden world can only benefit from. The more obstacles are placed before the realisation of that dream, the more we all lose out, all of us. But let that not be the reason — even if folk had nothing to offer, let us move away from the ever-extractive capitalism-serving constructions of a life worth living — the lies that our worth is in our productive capacity, the pace at which we live and work, the number of outputs we are able to spit out.
On the last day of the residential we spoke of courage, and out of that came a call to love from the cohort of eight – to trust, to be generous and to uphold kindness even through fury over injustice. This is where the revolution lives. In a world where ubiquitous ideas around ableism are so easily internalised, where bodies that digress from constructed normality are regarded with suspicion, even repulsion, the call to love is the most radical, revolutionary thing any of us can do.
POST SCRIPT – AT THE RAW INTERSECTION OF DISABILITY & MOBILITY JUSTICE IN THE FOLD OF ENVIRONMENTAL CATASTROPHE
12 February 2023
In the early hours of the morning after we returned to the UK, a devastating earthquake struck the region, with Gaziantep as the epicentre, wreaking unimaginable death and destruction in both Turkey and Syria, and with strong tremors felt in Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan. As bodies, dead and alive, continue to be pulled out from underneath the rubble, the realisation lands that disabled bodies were inevitably less likely to survive.
With the Earth increasingly kicking back at the rapacious invasion of its resources for profit, the body that cannot run or traverse physical obstacles, cannot see where it is going, cannot take an audio cue of incoming threat, is significantly less likely to survive. We become reliant on those who love us to carry us, to run alongside us, to invent all manner of ways to speed up an inevitably slower escape. We are reminded that our very survival is deeply entwined with the health and wellbeing of the Earth, our only home. We are reminded, if nothing else, that for the sake of all our loved ones – our elderly parents, our babies & toddlers – we must stand up to the corporate greed driving environmental destruction on a mass scale.