Q&A with Siobhan Fennell
This International Women's Day, we're proud to profile the activist at the helm of Accessible Belper. A reminder to all of us that accessibility for disabled people is the responsibility of everyone.
In a small Derbyshire town called Belper you'll find beautiful green scenery, quaint houses and choppy riversides as the River Derwent bisects the market center. It's hard to imagine somewhere so tranquil is the home of such a titan: Siobhan Fennell. Her humble and self-depreciating personality, would probably have her squirming at me labelling her that. Perhaps a man framing the narrative around a woman's character, is exactly what International Women's Day seeks to eradicate. In any other context I'd take heed of this, but I must be adamant about heralding the grandeur of who Siobhan is.
She is the founder and chairwoman of Accessible Belper. Described as "an initiative aimed at broadening our understanding of everyone's needs" which perfectly encapsulates Siobhan's world view. They also offer free disability awareness training to individuals, groups and businesses and in 2019 Siobhan was awarded a British Empire Medal for her services to transport accessibility, inclusion and disability awareness. In 2018 Siobhan was presented with a statue of herself as part of a push to address the lack of statues of women in the U.K. When the campaign was launched it was recorded that of the 925 public statues in the UK, only 25 were of non-mythical, non-royal women. There were more statues of people called John. There are were more statues of goats. In 2020, an initiative called Topple The Racists found that there were at least 60 statues of slave owners in the U.K. This means that for a long time (and possibly still to this day) if you wanted a statue in your honour in Britain, you'd be better off having owned slaves than a uterus. Facts like this alone demonstrate how crucial it is to celebrate women who do amazing things, even women like Siobhan who don't yearn for the spotlight.
As we sit in her front room for this interview we bat back and forth in a debate about whether or not people are inherently good or not. She passionately purports that they are and whilst I don't particularly agree, it's hard not to buy into such a sunny disposition. Alongside Accessible Belper, Siobhan has always been an active member of her community, which is reflected in her poetry. As we're talking, her face lights up, as she tells me about her involvement in the human library. It's an initiative where, rather than books, people can hire out people for half an hour and hear their life story. The aim is to harbour greater understanding amongst different people. Her poem on the initiative Welcome To My World contains the lines "My cover puts them off, my title is difficult to read, prejudice slips past swiftly". This points to her belief that our exteriors shouldn't determine what people perceive our inherent value to be. Siobhan suffers with Multiple sclerosis, a degenerative illness that has gradually made her less and less able to control her body. She currently uses an electronic wheelchair, that I learn has an unbelievably responsive joystick as I whizz her about the house. To be honest: growing up with our closest family friend's needs gradually changing, whilst their personality seems the same, has perhaps blinded me to the difficulties Siobhan faces.
"I love people. People are my life"
- Siobhan Fennell
Sometimes the most heroic thing we can do, is have humility to show our human side. Siobhan admits her skepticism about doing this interview as she says "at the moment I'm going through this crisis of confidence". She tells me of it's down to the isolating nature of the most recent development of her MS. It leaves her bedridden fairly often. All of us are susceptible to becoming downtrodden with constant upsetting news cycles. Despite mainly living with family, friends or housemates, many of us found the loneliness to be the hardest part of Covid lockdowns. Now imagine being fully alone and bedridden most of the day. With most activities that would serve as a distraction physically impossible. When I ask the (daft) question as to why she doesn't feel like her normal self, she explains that doing her community work on the computer isn't the same. The computer in her bedroom that she can use un-assisted has made her world even smaller.
"My happy space had became a bit of a prison"
- Siobhan Fennell
Visibility is important and for all the well deserved plaudits and accolades that follow Siobhan everywhere she goes, true visibility is transparency about when things are actually a bit rubbish. In 2019 Siobhan penned a poem called A Journey With The Cruel Thief of Many Scars (MS serving as an initialism for many scars and multiple sclerosis) that emotionally details Siobhan's loss of a sense of self. Reading it evokes all sort of emotions, initially surprise that someone always so joyous in your company could feel so dejected. Then a sense of naivety for thinking anyone with MS could feel any less frustrated.
We talk about the poem, with lines such as "And the bile is choking as alien bitterness overwhelms me. Where have I gone so lost and hidden?" for a long time and it draws out some of her most poignant reflections. Another line reads "I have the power to recreate myself. I can be proud of who I am" which is striking, because it points to the innate metamorphosis that happens as her body continues to change. Rather than a simple pre/post-disability existence. Siobhan describes herself as "a totally different person" to who she was even five years ago, which is a good axis upon which to communicate an important message. There is a tendency in our society to deal with difference by pretending it's immaterial. Whether it's claiming not to see see colour and race, only accepting gay people when their relationships visually emulate heteronormativity (butch and femme/bear and twink etc) or in the case of disability: engaging in toxic positivity and not acknowledging the challenges disabled people face. To the extent that we don't offer enough comfort for fear of being patronising. I am definitely guilty of not knowing how to strike that balance. But Siobhan's earnestness in giving us the reality of her struggle puts the onus on all of us to do better.
One man who certainly couldn't be more of an example to the rest of us is Siobhan's husband Graham. She is adamant that his role in her life is trumpeted in this piece. Days like International Women's Day, or any mention of feminist discourse tend to stir up feelings of defensiveness or outright anger from men. As though increased recognition or equality for women would be to our detriment. I've also questioned the logic of this, since it's not like there's a finite amount of human rights to go around - it's not pie. Siobhan points out that she gets to all the events she attends in the modified car Graham drives her in. He's there to comfort her through all the nerves and wobbles. For my part, as a boy and man growing up watching him, I know what the zenith of love for a woman is. It's an inspiring mark to strive to.
Agency and empathy are two of the most important things that make us human. Siobhan's agency may have wained, but the empathy and the proactivity it catalyses are inextinguishable. She further describes the ways in which she feels she has lost herself and the crisis of identity brought about by her illness. She is clearly restless at not being able to get out and serve her community. She is supportive as she talks about what other women in Derbyshire's feminist and creative caucuses are up to, yet visibly malaise at her circumstantial exclusion. When I ask why she doesn't feel content with what's she's accomplished thus far, she relays some advice one of her nurses gave her around her time of diagnosis. "There's always something else to look forward to" and there's nothing Siobhan looks forward to more, than the prospect of making life better for other people. She has moulded that advice into her personal mantra that "There's always someone out there who needs your help". She goes onto explain that she wouldn't feel comfortable accepting the privilege that would be required to disassociate from wider society. Whilst musing of what the world would be like if some of our most influential forces had adopted a similar attitude before the end of their timeline.
"Aspiration keeps us going"
- Siobhan Fennell
As we wrap up the interview I hit Siobhan with the impossible question of how she'd describe herself. Strangely enough she has quite a succinct answer. She tells me that years ago on a training course staff were asked to draw and write the title of their autobiography (an insufferable sounding task honestly). She drew herself at the bottom of a hill with the title "Nearly There". In present day she sees herself as:
"A woman of contradictions whose been on a journey"
I for one feel privileged to have grown up watching that journey unfold. The best is yet to come.
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