Friday, January 24, 2014

Famous Speech Friday: Tanni Grey-Thompson's "shout a bit louder" on disability

He was the first deaf member of parliament in England, and perhaps in the world, and nearly left his seat after an operation left him unable to hear. But Lord Jack Ashley went on to learn lip-reading, kept his seat and campaigned for people with disabilities, even inspiring the development of live-captioned television.

In 2013, a year after his death, it fell to another member of Parliament to give the inaugural lecture in memory of Lord Ashley. Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson told the audience, "When I say that Jack was the first 'real' disabled person I saw on TV, it was because all the other 'disabled' people I saw were actually actors, playing a part...These were my really my only role models of what life might be like. Jack was the closest thing to reality that I wanted to experience," she explained. That's because Grey-Thompson has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair.

She used the speech to bring into sharp focus for her audience what it's like to be disabled today. Despite her own storied career as a gold-medal-winning Paralympian and a successful second career in Parliament, she finds herself discriminated against and underestimated again and again. In the lecture, she reflected on it in terms of finding her voice:
The one that still gets me is when people count my money back in to my hand and tell me not to lose it. My husband is always daring me to throw it on the floor. When I was pregnant I had medical professionals ask me if I couldn't cope would I either mistreat or put my baby or put it up for adoption. My response was that I would hire a nanny. I still haven't figured out a way to deal with it. I don't want to shout back, because I know that people will think I have a chip on my shoulder. I do think it's funny that when I do speak out, people think that my volume button is at full blast. I usually think it is about 2 out of 10.... Just once I would like to tell people what I think, but I know that the floodgates will open I will scream and not stop and that this isn't the right way. What I still want is change, not just to scream. 
While her own disability does not affect her vocal advocacy in their behalf, she also used the speech to urge people with disabilities to join her: “I am not advocating protests on the streets but we need disabled people to stand up and shout a bit louder about what they want, so it is not just us in parliament. Disabled people need to find their voice again.” It's fitting, then, that coverage of the speech called it one of her most "outspoken." What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Get specific: Grey-Thompson shares some of the stories she sees in her mail from disabled constituents, but it's the stories she tells on herself that are loaded with details, from the cruel and ridiculous statements she hears to the barriers--political and physical--she has faced in going to school, participating in sports and more. They sound unbelievable, but the specifics make them concrete and palpable.
  • You can, in fact, speak with feeling about someone you didn't know well: The speaker and the honoree met, but didn't know each other well. Nonetheless, Grey-Thompson shares perspective on Lord Ashley and his impact on her. With the lightest of touches, those personal details offer a moving testimony to the reach of his influence.
  • Share the unexpected perspective: This speech does a good job at revealing Grey-Thompson's passion for politics, which grew out of her family's fight against efforts to keep her out of a school due to her condition. Her views on athletics, architecture and more find their way into the speech, making it a multifacted view of an accomplished woman.
Grey-Thompson is on the BBC Woman's Hour Power List and has written Aim High, a book about her inspirations. We don't have video from this speech, but you can read the full text here and watch a video in which she discusses disability, and how having a wheelchair gave her the freedom to do what she wanted to do. What do you think of this famous speech? 

(Creative Commons licensed photo from NCVO London's photostream on Flickr)

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