HLN meets: Emily Morison of Able Emily
HLN chatted to Emily about her campaigning work, disability representation, and what we all can do, on an individual level, to help the cause…
Emily Morison is a North East based activist and campaigner, fighting for the rights of the disabled community, particularly with regards to accessibility.
She has spoken to national and local news outlets to share her experiences, and the challenges she faces as a disabled woman. Through her blog Able Emily, she continues to highlight the problems many disabled people face every day with regards to accessibility—be it getting around cities, shops, restaurants, or using public transport. HLN chatted to Emily about her campaigning work, disability representation, and what we all can do, on an individual level, to help the cause…
You’ve been working hard to campaign for better disability rights and accessibility. Do you feel things have improved at all in the last few years, or is progress still lagging?
There have definitely been some improvements made in recent years. I think awareness is certainly increasing and one of the biggest things to thank for this is the internet. It gives a space for more voices to be heard and stories to be shared. A good example of some positive change that I’ve noticed is the increase in awareness about invisible disabilities, with some supermarkets even having signs reading ‘Not all disabilities are visible’ on the doors of their disabled toilets. The unfortunate reality is that change just isn’t happening quickly enough. It seems that all too often, it takes years of disabled people speaking about and sharing an issue before the relevant parties ‘give in’ and realise we aren’t going to be quiet. It’s hard to have to battle so relentlessly for basic rights and to know that more often than not, it will take years for any change to happen. Those are going to be years of my life lived without equal access that I simply won’t get back.
An example of how slow progress can be is shown in research by disability charity Leonard Cheshire. It showed that 38% of rail stations in the UK do not have step-free access. They’re currently campaigning for the government to ensure this is at 0% by the year 2030. With current rates of progress, it’s unlikely that all train stations will be accessible before 2070. I’ll be in my 70s by then.
Is there anything people can do to help make a societal shift, so that disabled people’s rights are taken more seriously?
Be encouraged that there are things that people can do on an individual level, and lots of things people can implement in their own lives which may seem small but can actually make a big difference. Firstly, educate yourself—follow more disabled people on social media and make time to listen to what they have to say. If you’re a parent, talk to your kids about disability in an open and accepting way. So often I see kids being told off by their embarrassed parents because their kids are looking in my direction. I think this is one of the root causes for people growing up to feel awkward around disability. According to research by The Red Cross, 1 in 2 non-disabled people feel they have nothing in common with disabled people. I also think people should try to be as mindful as possible about their language regarding disability, and listen to what disabled people have to say about it. Just because terms are commonly used, it doesn’t mean they’re appropriate or helpful. A good example of this is ‘wheelchair-bound’. It’s used a lot, and too many may seem just like a harmless descriptor, but I actually think it’s a really harmful phrase. It contributes to the mindset that wheelchair users are in some way restricted by their disability, rather than just being restricted by a society that isn’t designed to include them. We need to realise that the language we use when we’re talking about disability can be inherently ableist and contribute to ableist mindsets and ideas which are the root cause of our world being as inaccessible as it is to so many.
You provide excellent reviews of venue accessibility on your blog. When did you decide to begin this work?
I started my blog back in 2018 after a friend encouraged me to do so. I initially did it with the intention of meeting more disabled people, as at the time I only had one disabled friend. The sense of community I found online was incredible. From there, I slowly started to realise that I had simply accepted the constant discrimination that had become a part of my life since becoming disabled. Slowly, I started to challenge my own acceptance of the way I was being treated by speaking out and challenging others to join me.
After an awful experience back in 2019 where a large hotel chain failed to evacuate me from their building in a fire alarm, I began to realise the potentially disastrous impact that lack of equality and accessibility. But at the same time, I also discovered just how much power and impact I can have as a disabled person speaking up for myself and others like me. I didn’t need to simply come to accept a lower standard of living, there was something I could do about it.
As you’ve written about other cities accessibility on your blog, how does The North East measure up in comparison? Do any places, businesses or brands stand out to you as doing well in their approach?
I may be a little biased as a Geordie, but I love the North East. We have lots of accessible places to visit. I have really missed doing accessibility reviews on my blog since Covid hit. Some of my favourites include the Centre for Life, Tyneside Cinema, Land of Oak and Iron in Winlaton, and Beach Access North East, which has beach wheelchairs for hire at Whitley Bay, South Shields, Newbiggin and Blyth. Gym Possible, a state-of-the-art gym with wheelchair-accessible exercise equipment and specially trained personal trainers is also an incredible place, I really miss it. Motion North East is another fantastic project run by Jonathan Baker, who is a personal trainer who has lots of experience in working with disabled people. He offers adaptive fitness sessions over Zoom at the moment and is offering them in person when restrictions allow.
Do you have a favourite place to visit in the North East that you’re looking forward to getting back to?
My favourite café to head to is Café 1901 Deli in Gosforth. I love going there whether it be to work, have a meeting or meet my friends. It’s fully accessible and the sliding doors mean I don’t need any help from anybody to go in or out. Plus the coffee and baked goods are AMAZING!
You’ve talked about the challenges of lockdown and isolation, what would you like people to know from your perspective during this time?
This is a really difficult time for everyone. In the same way we wouldn’t say we shouldn’t be happy because someone has it better than us, I think it’s really important that we allow ourselves to be sad regardless of whether someone has it worse than us. That said, I think it’s really important to think about disabled people in lockdown, as we often get overlooked. Many disabled people have been shielding for almost a year now and many more have had to go without vital care. I feel fortunate that I haven’t had to shield, but there have been some difficult things about lockdown for me that are directly linked to being disabled. One of those things is that I’ve watched on as the whole world has quickly adapted to the pandemic and made lots of adjustments more or less overnight to make life liveable despite the restrictions. Many of these things are things, such as the ability to work from home, are things that disabled people have been asking for for years, yet have been consistently denied.
As a disabled person, you could say I’ve been better equipped to deal with lockdown and restrictions. I’m so used to living in a world that is not very accessible to me, and there are lots of places and activities that are off-limits to me. This is something I’ve got used to and I’m very well acquainted with the FOMO that accompanies it.
Has anything helped you get through the first two lockdown’s that you’ll be implementing this time?
Netflix has been a very reliable friend through all three lockdowns! From Tiger King to The Queen’s Gambit, I’ve binged almost all of the big hit series. I love the escapism that they bring.
HLN is all about championing women. Who are the women who inspire you?
There are so many women who inspire me. In terms of other disabled women, I was fortunate enough to work with Tanni-Grey Thompson last year, and that was an incredible experience. Tanni is an amazing person and inspires me to keep speaking out and live the life I want. I’m going to be really cheesy now, are you ready? I actually am a MASSIVE fan of Taylor Swift. I think the way she’s dealt with the way she’s been treated by the media is really inspiring. She lives her best life, somehow released TWO new albums in 2020 of all years, and has the cutest cats!
Social media has become a great tool for connecting people, are there any people you follow that you think readers should know about?
There are a lot of people I follow who I think share great content. Some I’d recommend on Instagram are:
Do you feel that disability representation is improving in the media?
There is better representation in the media these days, when you think that it was almost unheard of to see disabled people on TV perhaps even 10 years ago. However, I still don’t feel disabled people are adequately represented. It’s believed that more than 1 in 5 people in the UK are disabled, and I certainly don’t see that ratio playing out in what we see in the media. We need more than the occasional token wheelchair user to have representation that is accurate. It shouldn’t be a pleasant surprise to see diversity, it’s something we should be totally used to.
We can imagine campaigning for basic rights can be extremely draining at times, what keeps you going if you feel low or defeated?
Everybody has to rest sometimes, and it certainly can be really draining to spend time fighting for really basic rights. Some days, I avoid Twitter because I just can’t take any more stories of disabled people being let down for one day, and that’s okay. I usually rewind with a vanilla latte and a nice film!
What does the future hold for your campaigning, and your plans in general when things hopefully get back to a sense of normality?
Covid has certainly slowed things down in terms of campaigning, as it has been difficult to meet up with other campaigners and to get involved with the media. My plans for the future include more accessibility reviews (once we can leave our homes again!) And continuing to share my story through my various social media channels. I’m pretty open-minded and looking forward to what post-Covid life may hold.