Robert Ashton unpicks the true meaning of diverse, service user-led social-enterprise organisations.
I recently saw the amazing Congolese indie band Staff Benda Bilili perform at the Norwich Festival. If you’ve not heard of them I urge you to explore both their story and their music. They describe themselves as paraplegic street musicians and that’s exactly what they are.
Four of the band (pictured) had polio as kids. Three use wheelchairs and one crutches. This makes their dancing a little unusual, especially when one of the band tumbles out of his wheelchair to dance on the floor. As he performed a very practised handstand to get back into his wheelchair I realised just how much political correctness has inhibited our ability to see disability for what it really is; a handicap.
Not since Ian Dury have musicians been so successful at celebrating their disability in a way we can all share and yes, even enjoy. Dury’s song ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ still makes some people tremble, yet it was his ability to mock himself that made him so human.
Coming from the streets of Kinshasha where life is pretty basic, they’ve never experienced political correctness. Instead they’ve learned to adapt and be themselves. Their band could be termed a ‘service user-led social enterprise’ because they formed the band, perform the music and no doubt invest some of what they earn in making life better for those back home.
Contrast this with the sanitised, risk-assessed, safe and ‘appropriate’ service user-led organisations we see here. More often than not they are ‘professionally’ run with enough service users on the board to enable the term ‘service user-led’ to be justifiably claimed. Of course there are exceptions, but not as many as there could be.
So let’s learn some lessons from our Congolose friends. It’s OK to dance in crutches, shaking your useless leg about to entertain the audience. It’s OK to celebrate what makes you different, rather than feel a victim to the illness a simple childhood vaccination could have prevented.
Let’s stop ‘helping’ people who are different to become like us – instead let’s value the difference, diversity and huge mountains some people have to climb just to survive. Let’s be human for a change and experiment with wibbling when we’re piddling. It might actually help us understand disability for what it is, rather than what we try to make it!