The Business in Belfast Part 2

After our first week in Belfast where we worked to set up interviews with local Deaf people about their experiences in the system of justice, the two of us took a break and flew to London for two days. We dropped off our luggage at a lovely Airbnb in Maida Vale and took the Tube to Westminster Abbey. Exiting the station, we ran smack into a mob of tourists taking in the sights: Big Ben, the House of Parliament, the London Eye and of course, Westminster Abbey. There we met Mary McAleese, former president of Ireland, and her friend, Dori, and adjourned to a local cafe for a delicious lunch and good craic. After lunch, we said our farewells and hopped on an open air bus for a quick tour of central London. Heavy clouds threatened to soak us, and there was a nip in the air despite it being a mid-June day. As the bus wound its way through the city, we assessed the landscape’s accessibility, taking note of curb cuts or the lack thereof. We also noticed that the bus itself was not wheelchair accessible. For those who have never been to London, an open air bus tour is a real treat as it gives you a sense of the city. Not only do you see the major sights like Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, Big Ben and Parliament, and the Tower Bridge; you can hop on and off the bus on its route to explore sections on foot before returning to a bus on the route.

The next morning it was pouring rain, and we got soaked before we made it to the Riding House Cafe on Great Titchfield Road for our 8:00 am meeting with Gem Hall, an independent videographer, and Kelvin Brown, a producer with the BBC. On the agenda were ideas for two film projects: one with Gem and Kelvin as independent filmmakers, and the other with Kelvin in his role as a BBC producer. We batted ideas back and forth and agreed on a central idea: the film must be about people with disabilities and their interaction with the environment. We made it clear that we did not want to emulate the two common approaches to disability: the pity model (the tragedy of being disabled) and the super-crip model (the heroism of overcoming disability). We emphasised the importance of making the connection between people’s private troubles and the public issue of how disability is constructed, enforced and mediated. Put simply, disability is not located in the body; rather, it lies at the intersection of the condition (e.g., deafness, blindness, autism) and social policies and practices (including the built landscape). This intersection is what marginalizes and disables people, not the condition itself. Gem and Kelvin instantly grasped our analysis and agreed that was the angle for the film.

After our meeting with Gem and Kelvin, Kelvin took us over to the British Broadcasting Company, known all over the world as the BBC. We met Kelvin’s colleague, Vlad Hernandez, and we discussed the idea of a film about disability, one that went beyond individual narrative to a critical examination of the systemic nature of disability. Vlad emphasized the importance of collecting facts and figures about disability so that the BBC can assess how to create a compelling film, and with that goal greenlighted us moving forward with the project. After our meeting with Vlad, Kelvin took us on a tour of the BBC. We noted the open air quality of the building. Think of a large cylinder with floors and lots of glass windows - no walls! No offices! Everything is open, everyone can see each other, even those on various floors could still see others on other floors. It was airy and well-lit. It was exciting to see the broadcasters “on air” and other journalists typing at their desks. We saw the various entities covering the world: the Middle East, South Asia, different languages (e.g., Urdu, Chinese, Spanish, Russian).

The first week in Belfast focused on lining up interviews with Deaf people, writing memos about our encounters with folks like Bronagh Byrne, our colleague at Queen’s University, Ciaran White of Ulster University, and Lord Justice John Gillen of the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast. We also took time out to do a little sightseeing: the Antrim Coast, the Dark Hedges where Game of Thrones was filmed, Giant’s Causeway, and the walls of Derry. Then the second week we interviewed a total of eight Deaf people. We are now in the process of analyzing the transcripts of our interviews and plan on publishing a report aimed at supporting reform of process and practice aimed at enhancing Deaf people’s access to the system of justice.

To this end, we have joined forces with Dr. Bronagh Byrne of Queen’s University Belfast and filed an application for funding to continue this work.

Stay tuned!