Interviewer: Sophie Rivers
Interviewee: Paul Sullivan

Paul Sullivan sitting in the lobby of Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery with a folded cane on his lap


Sophie (00:00:01):
Okay, great. It’s recording now. Okay, thank you. Right, okay. So today’s date is the 15/09/2020. And I am the interviewer, Sophie Rivers, and I’ll be interviewing, if you could state your name, that would be great.

Paul (00:00:15):
Paul Sullivan.

Sophie (00:00:16):
Great, thank you. So, the first question is, what was your early involvement in the Disabled People’s Movement?

Paul (00:00:24):
Well, I would say that I haven’t been in… Just let me start again. You can edit this, can’t you?

Sophie (00:00:31):
Yeah, of course, take your time.

Living and working in Bristol

Paul (00:00:35):
Okay. Well, I came late to the Disabled People’s Movement really. I have never been a campaigner in the traditional sense of somebody who goes on demos and chains themselves to railings, et cetera. I was aware of the movement slightly, and certainly I had some awareness of the social model of Disability in the mid-1980s. But I didn’t really engage with it until I came to Bristol in 1993 and began working at University of Bristol, where I met activists and campaigners. And as I say, I then became aware of the social model and quickly saw its power for identifying where the problems Disabled people are faced with come from. But as I say, I was kind of late to the party really, and I always say I wasn’t a campaigner, but I’ve always campaigned or I’ve always worked for access and inclusion in my job, since Pdate:1993} anyway.

Sophie (00:01:56):
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Great, okay. Question two, what did it mean personally for you to be involved?

Paul (00:02:05):
Well personally, I suppose the thing it meant for me most personally was friendships. I met really interesting, intelligent campaigners in Bristol, people like Sue McMullen, Sue Raquel, Rowen Jade, and my good friend Elisabeth Standen, who died earlier this year I’m afraid to say. I was aware of Alun Davis a long time before that, I met him in Birmingham when we were both students at the university there. We’ve since become friends, but we weren’t particularly friendly then. But certainly, the people I’ve mentioned became, not close friends except Elisabeth, but friendly and a pleasure to work with. I mean, they opened up my understanding of the barriers that we face and the way to challenge discrimination and so on, work for inclusion. So yeah, it was really the personal contacts that I will remember most as the kind of big impact on me.

Paul (00:03:16):
I’ve never become a radical. I mean, I’m fairly moderate, middle of the road, wishy-washy kind of guy really. You won’t find me shouting and screaming too much. I mean, I can be fairly challenging when I want to be, but I like to think I’m a fairly amiable chap, and I don’t do it in too much of an aggressive way. So, I didn’t change in that way. But I did change in my understanding and increased my friendship group, and became aware of a wider range of people with different impairments and different degrees of impairment. So, I began to mix with deaf people, people with mobility impairments and mental health issues. So, my understanding and contacts and experience grew rapidly from about 19… Well, the mid-’90s, really, yeah.

Bristol University Disabilities Unit

Sophie (00:04:17):
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Great. What was your role in the Disabilities Unit at Bristol University?

Paul (00:04:23):
Okay. Well, I went to, well, what was then the Disabilities Unit, it ended up being called something like The Centre for Access and Communication Studies, and now it’s no more. But I went to work there on a project funded by Higher Education Funding Council for England, I think, as they were called then. Anyway, they got a grant from somewhere to… This was a while ago now obviously, I think that’s why I’m waffling and not remembering the details very much.

Paul (00:04:55):
Yeah, they got some money to encourage the participation of Disabled people in adult education courses, the sorts of extramural courses that universities put on, more in those days than they do now I fear. But they would be evening courses, Saturday day schools, that kind of thing. And my role was to increase the participation of visually impaired people specifically. I had a colleague also who started at the same time, whose role was to increase the uptake of deaf students.

Paul (00:05:35):
So, we worked to recruit students, to give them information about… Excuse me. To give them information about the availability of the courses and the support that we could provide. So, we provided information but also direct support. So, I sometimes would send Braille course materials, we certainly produced the prospectus in Braille. We would work with departmental staff to understand the needs of students with different impairments and to show them, if we couldn’t do it, to help them to find out where they could get course materials adapted or create an accessible format. So that sort of thing. It was a fairly wide role really.

Sophie (00:06:27):
How was the inclusive training delivered? What did it require?

Paul (00:06:31):
Oh, yes sorry, I didn’t mention the inclusive training. So one of the things [crosstalk 00:06:35]-

Sophie (00:06:35):
That’s okay.

Paul (00:06:36):
Yeah, so what happened, I got into this job at the, what was then called the Disabilities Unit, doing this work on widening participation to part-time courses for visually impaired people. But the unit also ran lots of other activities. So every year for instance, since I think it was the International Year of Disabled People, since then they’ve been running summer schools for visually impaired adults, which were week-long residential courses every summer on a whole range of subjects from archaeology to zoology really. We did, well they did, I say we because I got involved in them fairly early on. We did courses on aviation, on country houses, literature, sciencey courses, all kinds of things. You name it, we taught courses on it. That’s to say the department, we recruited the academics from the university and helped them to produce and deliver these accessible courses.

Disability equality and inclusion training

Paul (00:07:43):
So, I got involved in helping with that too. And then I also got involved with some training we did every year for the University Medical School, and also for the School of Social Policy. The Medical School work involved delivering, they called it awareness training, but it was… Basically it was Disability equality and inclusion training for medical students, young doctors, would-be doctors in their, I think at first they were third years, I think we came down and started doing it with the second years eventually. But certainly students in their earlier years of their medical training, and also with social work communities.

Paul (00:08:32):
So, that’s how we got… So I got involved in that. And the way we delivered those courses was slightly different for each group. So, for the social work students, it was basically one day in their course when a whole group of Disabled people, including people like Rowen Jade who I’ve mentioned, and I don’t think Sue Raquel worked for the Social Policy school, though she may have done. Mark Williams was another one, Elisabeth Standen. We would go along for the day and run some workshops on the social model basically. We’d teach them about the barriers as identified in the classic model. And then we would talk to them about the specific access needs of people with different impairments. So, I would talk about visually impaired people with access needs, Elisabeth would do deaf/blind people. There was a whole range of us.

Paul (00:09:34):
And so again, it was really collaborative working, which was great. I enjoyed all of… I’ve always enjoyed working with other people. I’m not really a loner. I’ve got a kind of streak in me that wants to be alone but it’s not very good for me. I actually like doing and working [inaudible 00:09:51] and I thrive when I’m with other people. So, that was great.

Paul (00:09:54):
With the medical students we had them for, I think we had them for basically a week in the first instance. I think by the time the courses stopped running we were down to about three days of their course. But early on we had them for a week, and we would do, again, we would teach them about the barriers that Disabled people face, we would do workshops on access needs for different people. We would send them out on field trips and they would go to The Centre for Deaf Studies, or they would go to the Centre for Deaf people that used to be in King Square. We would go to various… But they used to go to the Disabled Living Centre when it was in Fishponds. They would go to hospital departments working with orthopaedic departments and that sort of… So, they would go to places where they would have hands-on or direct experience of Disabled people.

Paul (00:10:58):
But everything was led by Disabled people, this was the great thing about them. So, all the teaching was done by Disabled people and they would learn to work with us to see us as equals, and they would see us working with the medical… Their teachers on equal terms, which was really good for them.

Paul (00:11:23):
So that’s how it was delivered really. It was a mixture of talks, field trips or workshops, and they would have projects to do during the week and they would be assessed on their projects at the end of the week. Just usual sort of university teaching really. But all created, the course was created and delivered by Disabled people, which was the really powerful thing about it.

Paul (00:11:50):
And I must say, they didn’t always like it. I think the social work students liked it, they were more touchy, feely. They were used to the idea of openness to other people’s talents and abilities. I think a lot of the medical students were there, they were very science-focused, they were there to learn and absorb facts. And all this touchy, feely stuff about barriers and needs and wishes and desires was a bit challenging for some of them. But it was really important work to make them realize that medicine isn’t just about science, it’s about real living people.

Giving effective training

Sophie (00:12:33):
That’s great. So, how effective do you think the training was? And if so, in what ways?

Paul (00:12:39):
Well, yeah, well I think the medical training was effective, I’m not sure how or if ever it was evaluated in any scientific way. But certainly the medical training I think was very effective in that we got them for a long period of time, the students, we got them early in their course so that they hadn’t learned too many bad habits [inaudible 00:13:07] hopefully, in practice. And as I say, it was early in their training. So early in their careers, they were going to go on and be doctors for years most of them hopefully. And so, we should have had, given that these courses ran, well I was involved with them from say ’94 till I left the university in 2006), so I think a year or two after that. So, I was involved with them for {date:14 years. Anyway, my maths is terrible. 14 years. We trained a lot of doctors. We worked and had an influence on a lot of people who went into medical profession. So, I hope we had a really big impact, but not sure if or how it was ever measured scientifically.

Sophie (00:13:57):
Yeah. I’m sure you did though, regardless.

Paul (00:14:00):
Well, I have met students that I’ve taught later on who have said they remembered what we taught them and it did make an impact on them. So, hopefully it did. And certainly with the… Sorry, I think with the social work students, they were… It was pushing at an open door with them because they were on our side anyway, [inaudible 00:14:24]. I think it was basically consolidating their understanding and encouraging them to keep going in the right direction.

Sophie (00:14:36):
Yeah. It’s kind of building on what they already know, isn’t it? And kind of fleshing out a bit I guess.

Paul (00:14:40):
Yeah, fleshing it out, reinforcing it and encouraging them to believe in it and confirming to them that they’re on the right lines, yeah.

Bristol Royal Society for the Blind

Sophie (00:14:49):
Yeah. Great, okay. When and how did you first become involved with the Bristol Royal Society for the Blind?

Paul (00:14:57):
Okay. So as I said, when I went to work at the university in ’93, my role was focused specifically on encouraging visually impaired people to do adult education courses. So, I was new to Bristol and had to quickly make contacts in the world of visual impairment. So, I went along to the local charity as it was then for blind people, Bristol Royal Society, and they were very helpful in giving me more contacts, and also in spreading the word about what we were trying to do. And then, I don’t know, at some point later on I was asked if I would like to join the management committee. They were looking for new members, so I became a member of that.

Paul (00:15:49):
They also had a small group called Bristol Blind, BBAG it was called, Bristol Blind Advisory Group, which was a group of local visually impaired people who met to chat. And we had speakers and we would provide, in theory, at least provide advice to anyone who wanted it about sight loss. So I got onto that. But the main thing was becoming a trustee, a member of the executive committee.

Paul (00:16:17):
And that eventually led to me taking the vice chair position and eventually the chair of the society. At rather a difficult time I have to say because the society closed down in 2001 I think, certainly it was just after the turn of the millennium. Funds ran out, the society had to close. Or would have had to close except that RNIB stepped in and took it on. So, it was quite a challenging time to become chairman. But I am pleased to say that we did keep it going and we handed it on to somebody else who could keep it going. And it did keep going until not very long ago whenRNIB withdrew from everything, but that’s another story.

Sophie (00:17:18):
Okay. [inaudible 00:17:19] A second interview.

Paul (00:17:21):

Sophie (00:17:22):
Could you talk about your experience of working at M Shed and how that related to your previous work?

Working at M Shed

Paul (00:17:28):
Sure. So I guess I got my job at M Shed on the strength of my previous work. The department I worked for at the university was being closed down and we were all about to be made redundant so I started applying for jobs. And I saw this job advertised at M Shed, well it wasn’t called M Shed in those days it was just The Museum Service, and they were building… Well, they were in the process of building M Shed, turning the old industrial museum into what is now M Shed. And they were looking for somebody to join the team to work on access, well, work on Disability, work on making the museum more inclusive and accessible for visually impaired, but also for all Disabled people.

Paul (00:18:19):
So, I guess the work I’d done at the museum… At the university. Sorry. I guess the work I’d done at the university in promoting inclusion and access, beyond just the work with the visual impaired students, the social work stuff, the medical stuff. I also did lots of other freelance training. So, I guess all that kind of made them think I could be useful to them in creating a more inclusive and accessible museum at M Shed.

Paul (00:18:52):
The thing about M Shed, there was two parts to it. One was the physical accessibility, they wanted the building to be user-friendly for everybody, but they also wanted the stories that M Shed tells to be the stories of everybody. So, not just the Colstons and the rich and famous of Bristol, all the usual suspects. They wanted to tell ordinary people’s stories and the stories of migrants and the stories of Disabled people, LGBT people, the whole gamut. And so, my role was specifically around Disability, but not specifically around sight loss, it was about making a museum that included and worked for Disabled people in total.

Sophie (00:19:43):

Paul (00:19:43):
So that’s how I got into it.

Sophie (00:19:45):
Yeah. What do you think has changed since you began work in Disabled People’s Movement?

Paul (00:19:54):
Okay. Can I just go back a step?

Sophie (00:19:56):
Of course, yeah.

Paul (00:19:57):
[crosstalk 00:19:57]. One thing I want to say about the-

Sophie (00:19:58):
Yeah, of course, yeah.

Paul (00:19:59):
About the M Shed situation was we had… Sorry. One of the things I want to say about the M Shed work is that I think we had an impact in a number of ways. One was on the physical environment at M Shed, which sadly I don’t think was as accessible as it could have been. I mean, it’s pretty accessible if you’re in a wheelchair, there’s level access throughout. But the sort of colour schemes, the way the objects are displayed so that visually and in terms of physical access and so on, I think all that could have been better, and I could go into reasons why that was not as optimal as it could have been.

Paul (00:20:48):
But the other thing is the inclusion side, and I think we did help to get a lot of Disabled people to tell their stories and to have Disabled people very higher profiled in the museum, that was great. And we did those things by setting up groups of Disabled people to come in and act as advisors. So, we initially set up an access group to work on the physical or intellectual access. And then we did another group called the inclusion group, which was about the stories, the content side. And that involved lots of Disabled people coming into the museum for meetings and being visible and high profile. And I think that was really good.

Paul (00:21:34):
And the attitude in M Shed and the rest of the museum service to be honest, is very positive about Disability and was in my day. The big problem I think that we never got anywhere near cracking was to get people to change their ways of working so that they adopted kind of inclusive design principles, they designed for all from the start. It was very hard to get them to do anything that worked for everybody because they added on Disability when lots of big decisions had been made. I mean, inclusive design principles say that you should include everybody and think about everybody from the start.

Paul (00:22:25):
And I think they thought they were doing that, they would want to include Disabled people. But actually working on how, the nuts and bolts of how you do that, I think they often left too late. Certainly in terms of M Shed they were well down the design process when I came along. Although, there were other people advising them. I mean, Bristol Physical Access Chain were consulted occasionally. The architect had his own [inaudible 00:22:57] access consultant. The museum staff themselves had been doing, thinking about the content and the inclusion of Disability and Disabled stories. But it was still very late in the day when they actually started to work out how they implemented these desires and aspirations.

Paul (00:23:22):
And certainly throughout the rest of the service, because after M Shed opened I stayed in the museum service and worked across the service more generally. And it was [inaudible 00:23:32], there was lots and lots of goodwill and really bright, enthusiastic people wanting to do more and to do it right. But it’s very hard in a big-ish organization where there’s lots of [inaudible 00:23:50] to get people to change the way they work. And some embraced it more than others. But still, we never really got any projects going I don’t think that followed inclusive design principles that really did start from the very beginning to say, “If we’re going to do this project, how can we do it in a way that includes everybody?” I think often too many decisions were made before they got to that stage, and then their hands were tied.

Sophie (00:24:21):
[crosstalk 00:24:21] often the case, yeah.

Paul (00:24:38):
Yeah, yeah. So, if you’re [inaudible 00:24:40] to the museum [crosstalk 00:24:33].

Sophie (00:24:40):
Yeah, I am, yeah. Yeah, I’m doing a master’s, yeah.

Paul (00:24:44):
[inaudible 00:24:33]. That is something to be aware of [inaudible 00:24:38].

Sophie (00:24:44):
Yeah, I made a note of it actually. So, thank you.

Paul (00:24:44):
Yeah. I think that’s the challenge still, to get people to work, to follow inclusive or universal design principles, because it’s such a different way of thinking for people.

Changes in the Disabled people’s movement

Sophie (00:24:58):
Yeah. Okay, so the next question. What do you think has changed since you began working in the Disabled People’s Movement?

Paul (00:25:07):
Ah, interesting. Well, obviously technology has changed a lot. So, we’ve got a lot more gadgets around and a lot more access if you like. So, we can get into places more, we can use services. As a blind person I can order my groceries online and stuff like that, because the computer technology works for me. Well, at least the websites are now designed so they will work for us, work with our technology. TV, I can watch audio description on televisions, I can watch a film and know what’s going on just like you can to some degree.

Paul (00:25:52):
So, I think there’s lots of gadgets and gizmos and accessibility progress, which is good. I think the downside of it is we’ve become much more atomized. I think Disabled people are much more isolated, they are less united as a… I think this movement has basically died away and that Disabled people are not collaborating to fight their cause or to raise their collective voices in the way they used to do. It’s harder now because we’re all kind of… We think the battle’s been won, and it hasn’t. We’ve got a few goodies, the workforce, and that’s great. [inaudible 00:26:40] I mean I use technology every day, I have a guide dog, I’ve got… There’s lots of facilities that make doing things easier.

Paul (00:26:54):
But I think things could easily go backwards if we don’t keep the pressure up. If we think that the battle’s won and stop reminding people that we’re here and we need to be included, I think that we could see things going backwards. I think we are seeing things go backwards in some respects. But I’m hopeful because I think things can’t go on the way we’ve always done them. The world is changing and we need younger people to come forward and to be in places of influence. People like you going off to university and studying and getting into the museum world or into politics or into… We need people, intelligent, [inaudible 00:00:27:44], articulate, energetic people out there doing stuff, as there always have been. But I think we also need a collective voice, so we need a bit of both really. Individuals in the right places and then a collective voice so that we can back up these individuals, or these influential individuals can open the doors for the rest of us.

Looking forwards

Sophie (00:28:16):
Yeah. Okay. In regards to the future, what would you say needs to happen to achieve better access and inclusion? What still needs to change? I think you’ve kind of briefly touched upon it earlier.

Paul (00:28:30):
Yeah, I think I have briefly. I mean, in a word I would say community building. I think community building, we do need a stronger sense of togetherness among Disabled people so that we support each other. And that involves Disabled people understanding where the issues lie and how they can be challenged. I think there’s less of a political awareness among Disabled people now than there used to be. That’s my sense. I may be wrong. I hope I am. But I do think it’s a good thing in a way that there are less specialist organizations for specific groups.

Paul (00:29:15):
But one of the good things people took away from say, boarding schools for blind people or whatever, is you learned about each other and you had a collective sense of community. And I think that doesn’t exist anymore among specific impairment groups, and certainly much, much less among pan-disability, among Disabled people as a whole. I think there is much less of a sense that we’re all together, we all support each other and we’ve got a guide. Yeah, I think it’s just the lost… We need to get back to a sense of identity and community [inaudible 00:30:02]. And I don’t know how you do that. And it certainly won’t be done by old-timers like me. It’s up to the future and the up and coming leaders I would say.

Paul (00:30:16):
But all this technology is atomizing us, it’s separating us because we can do much more than we used to do. But I may be wrong about that, because certainly for instance in the world I know which is the world of visual impairment, the world I know best, there is a community, a support community online. So for instance, if I want to know how to do anything on my iPhone, I can ask a question on a Facebook group for visually impaired iPhone users, and somebody will tell me. So, maybe it’s that kind of community out there, support community. And there are lots of Facebook groups of mutual interest groups.

Paul (00:31:02):
But I’m not sure that there’s still a sense… It’s all about how you do something, how you overcome a technical problem. But it’s not about how we change society so that those technical problems aren’t there in the first place. And the thing is, technology changes, we’re going to be having to fight these battles of accessibility all the time. So, the really crucial thing is that Disabled people are included early on in the design process of everything, of goods, services, facility, whatever. And that will only happen if we keep demanding it.

Sophie (00:31:48):
Yeah, that’s very true.

Paul (00:31:51):
For what it’s worth, that’s what I think needs to be done.

Sophie (00:31:53):
No, no. Yeah, that’s a very, very good point.

Paul (00:31:56):
Community building is really strong, and I don’t know how you’d do it because certainly a lot of Disabled people are very anti-banding together, they band together over an issue, like I say, how I can use my phone better or [inaudible 00:32:12] visually impaired film lovers or whatever. But the bigger picture, the bigger political issue about how you promote inclusion for all in society, I don’t know how you make that attractive and get people to spend their time and energy promoting it.

Sophie (00:32:34):
Yeah, that’s a very good point actually. Okay, so for our final question. What would you say is your greatest achievement, both personally and as part of a team?

Paul (00:32:44):
That’s really for other people to say. But I would say the thing I think that I’ve been part of that’s had the most impact is the medical training and the social work training at the university. I think that will have its longest lasting effects. And I hope that’s true. And I’ve done lots of stuff and I’ve had a few awards and things, but they’re not world-changing. I think changing and working with students and helping them to be more open and accepting and positive and imaginative. So yeah, I think that’s really useful and I’m glad to have been involved in that.

Wrapping up

Sophie (00:33:34):
Yeah. Great. Well, I think that’s all the questions.

Paul (00:33:38):
Yeah, I hope it’s some use?

Sophie (00:33:41):
No, honestly, thank you so much for your time. It was really fascinating. And especially for me going to my master’s in [inaudible 00:33:49] studies, it’s perfect timing to talk to you and hear your views on inclusive practice and stuff, because it’s something that I… This is why I’m doing a master’s essentially, to make museums more inclusive to everyone, especially people with Disabilities.

Paul (00:34:04):
So tell me about you then, Sophie, is that all right?

Sophie (00:34:07):
Yeah. I don’t know how to stop the recording though, because Laurie’s got…

Paul (00:34:12):
Yeah. I’ll tell you what, I’ll send you a text.

Sophie (00:34:14):

Paul (00:34:14):
Give me a call and we’ll have a chat about museums generally.

Sophie (00:34:19):
Yeah, that would be great. That would be really good actually, yeah.

Paul (00:34:21):
If I can, I’m sure. I mean I left the museum service four years ago now, I’m not sure I’ve got many insights, but if I can help in any way, or…

Sophie (00:34:32):
I’m sure you’ve got much more than you know. I’m sure there’s so much to tell me about.

Paul (00:34:36):
Well, I’d be glad to talk to you anyway.

Sophie (00:34:40):
Yeah. That would be really good actually, yeah. Oh yeah, so I’ll email you and give you my, yeah. Well, you’ve got my number anyway, yeah.

Paul (00:34:48):
I’ve got your number, I’ll send you a text. [crosstalk 00:34:49]

Sophie (00:34:49):
Yeah, yeah. That’d be great.

Paul (00:34:51):
All right.

Sophie (00:34:53):
Okay. Thank you for your time, it’s been so interesting.

Paul (00:34:56):
That’s all right. So, I-

Sophie (00:34:57):
And yeah, if you feel like we’ve missed out on anything and you want a second interview, then just let me know and we can arrange.

Paul (00:35:03):
Yeah, no, that’s fine.

Sophie (00:35:05):

Paul (00:35:07):
I’ll send the form to Laurie.

Sophie (00:35:09):
That’d be great.

Paul (00:35:10):
I’ll do that in a minute.

Sophie (00:35:10):
Yeah, great.

Paul (00:35:14):
All right, Sophie. I’ll speak to you-

Sophie (00:35:15):
Great, yeah.

Paul (00:35:16):
Privately about the museum.

Sophie (00:35:17):
Yeah. Great. Thank you very much.

Paul (00:35:17):
All right, cheers then.

Sophie (00:35:17):
Thank you. Bye, bye, bye

Paul (00:35:17):

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