Interviewer: Megan Belcher
Interviewee: Penny Germon

Penny Germon sitting in arcade in front of the Watershed with an iron column behind her and a church tower in the background

Introductions

Megan (00:00:00):
Okay. So today’s date is the 6th of July, 2020. My name is Megan Belcher 00:00:09]. And I’m interviewing?

Penny:
Penny Germon 00:00:12].

Megan:
So this interview is part of our Forging Our Future research project. So just a few things to go over at the beginning. So obviously because this is about you, we would kind of want to stop from disclosing other things about other people obviously. But everything about you is great. So we’ll just focus on that. As I said before, everything that we’re going to discuss will be placed in the care of the museum service, which has a process, which is of secure storage. Which is GDPR compliant. So if there’s any personal data disclosed in the interview that afterwards you think, “Actually probably shouldn’t have said that,” or, “I don’t want that to be included,” just let me know and I’ll be able to flag that up. Due to it being an oral history interview, there’s going to be a lot of me nodding when you’re talking. But I’m not going to interrupt you, because we-

Penny:
Okay.

Megan:
… want to hear your story.

Penny:
Yeah.

Megan:
Is that all okay with you?

Penny:
That’s fine. Yes.

Megan:
Perfect. So should we … If we get started. So if we start with, would you be able to tell me a little bit about your activism background?

Penny:
Yes. So how long have you got?

Megan:
As long as you want.

Penny:
So before I just launch in, could you just give me some idea of how many questions … How much are you looking for? How many questions have you got? Or is it a chat? Or how do I gauge what-

Megan:
Okay.

Penny:
… how much to say really? Yeah.

Megan:
So it’s an open interview. So I’ve got some just very basic questions-

Penny:
Okay.

Megan:
… that I’ll kind of get informed by whatever you say. So I’ll just kind of take my cues from you.

Penny:
Okay.

Megan:
So say whatever you want about anything-

Activist beginnings

Penny (00:02:25):
Are you looking for my story, really, in terms of perhaps when I start … What happened at the beginning, how I came into it, that kind of thing?

Megan:
Yeah. Just kind of your background in the activism in Bristol or elsewhere.

Penny:
Okay.

Megan:
And particularly obviously within the Disability activism.

Penny:
Okay. Yeah. All right. So I went along to … Somebody put a note through my door telling me that they thought I would be interested in the fact that there was a meeting of the Avon Coalition of Disabled People. And this was a newly formed group. And they’d had a big meeting. And this was the meeting following up the big meeting. And it was at St. Werburghs Community Centre I think. And I went along there. And I was very excited, but I was also very … Well, I didn’t know what to expect. But the person that told me about it, I kind of trusted their judgment. And I went along. And there was a room full of Disabled people, and I’d never been in a room full of Disabled people before. And I didn’t know anyone. And the interview proceeding started. And the meeting went along. Can I say anything about who was there?

Megan:
So if we … I’ll say, no. But obviously if it’s part of your story, and it’s pertinent, then you could maybe just … Like the leader at that time, or something like that.

Penny:
Okay. Yeah. So I think one of the main people, if not the main person leading the meeting was Ruth Pickersgill 00:04:49]. And she was amazing. And I sat and listened, and they were setting the management committee basically. And they wanted people to take on particular roles.

Editing Avon Coalition of Dsabled Peoples’ newsletter

Penny (00:05:05):
And it got to newsletter, “Who’s going to produce the newsletter?” And for some reason, I put my hand up and I said I would produce the newsletter. And left very excited. And then I kind of thought it was quite audacious on my part. But it really, I was so excited about having a role and having to produce this thing that I felt I could do. And I’d recently been given a typewriter. And I went about kind of formulating this newsletter.

Penny:
I didn’t know much about the Social Model of Disability at the time. And I kind of instinctively understood that I was not treated fairly as a Disabled person. And that’s why I’ve been put in touch with the Coalition. So I’d written for example, I’d written a letter to Venue Magazine several months before, I think. And I was really fed up, because I’d gone to a work fair at the Watershed. And I couldn’t get to it, because it was inaccessible. And I wrote to the venue saying that I didn’t think that things like that should be held in inaccessible buildings. And I used the term, “People with disabilities,” because I didn’t know. That seemed right to me that you’re a person first, and your disability comes second.

Penny:
So the person that put me in touch with the Coalition knew that I was kind of feeling this isn’t right how Disabled people are treated. So I had this newsletter, and I was a bit kind of … There’s a lot of talk about the social model. And so I was kind of conscious, “Oh, yeah. This needs to come from the Social Model.” So I knew that that had to inform the newsletter. But it couldn’t, the content of the newsletter had to be around that. And somebody took the time to explain to me what the Social Model of Disability was. And why we talk about Disabled people and not people with disabilities. And that made perfect sense to me. And I was just like a sponge, that I just absorbed all of this information. And I produced this newsletter.

Penny:
And I thought I had a copy somewhere. But I think it was … I can’t remember whether it was A4 on both sides. Or whether it was A3 folded in half. But it had Avon Coalition of Disabled People at the top. And I had to space all the columns on my typewriter. Just go down one column, and then go down the next. And kind of cut and paste, but literally cut the paper and paste it on. So I did my first newsletter. And I’ve kept up an interest in that kind of thing. And then I would go along to the management committee meetings that were at CSV, at Lawfords Gate. And just be involved in this amazing group of people, and this amazing debate, and about what we should do.

Empowerment and self-determination

Penny (00:09:09):
And then Ruth managed to get a grant from the then Avon County Council, Community Leisure Department. And that was to employ a Development Worker. And I applied for the job, and I got the job. Yes, that was so exciting. And my job description was to empower the self … “To facilitate the empowerment and self-determination of Disabled people in the County of Avon”. And it went on. And I remember being in, I think what was the Purple Room, at Easton Community Centre, having my interview. And being asked about, “What are the principles of Community Development?” And somebody had said to me, “There’s a three day course on the community development. Go and book yourself on that.” And that was like two weeks before the interview or something. And two notable people in community develop who ran that course.

Penny:
And anyway, I got the job. And that was the next really big thing that happened. And one of my first tasks was to … Avon Social Services had produced the consultation about something. And I had to coordinate a response from the coalition to Avon County Council from a Disability Equality perspective. And our office was … The only one that we could find that was accessible and affordable that was probably the only one that was accessible was the newly built Easton Community Centre. And they let us share the downstairs community work office. And so I was in there. And I had a computer and an email address. That was a new thing. And that was amazing.

Ruffling feathers

Penny (00:11:46):
So my job then was about consciousness raising really, and working with Disabled people. And did loads of stuff. And one of the things that I did was, I went around the Day Centres. There was an awful lot of Day Centres at the time. And put to people the notion that Disabled people should not only have a say, but should have a self-organized space within the Day Centre. And this was very, very problematic. It really ruffled people’s feathers. And basically, it’s power, isn’t it? It’s about the power relationships. And the fact that Disabled people were saying, “We want to speak for ourselves. We want to represent ourselves. We want to make our own decisions. And your job is to help us do that.”

Penny:
So yeah, so we set on … So gradually, some of the Day Centres had kind of committees of Disabled people. And we set up the Day Centre Users Network. And that was right across Avon. That was really exciting at that time Community Care was coming in. But we also had International Women’s Day, Disabled Women’s Day Celebration. And we did events for young Disabled people. And also we did a conference with Black Disabled people. So it was kind of consciousness raising. We developed a course call Disability: Who’s Problem. And I met a lot of … A lot of people came into the Coalition through that route. And it was so exciting kind of being on that journey with people. And then something kind of suddenly slots into place and it’s just like, “Yes. Why have I not seen this before?”

The Tragic But Brave Roadshow

Penny (00:14:12):
And yeah, it was very … It’s a real privilege, and really exciting to be on that journey with people. So my job really was to grow the Coalition community. And there was some … We were making history. And we would go to the Bristol Community Groups Network, which was all the community and voluntary groups that met at that time. And we had to campaign for them to hold those meetings in accessible buildings. And then some of that group would say, “Yeah, we’re not going to a meeting unless it’s in an accessible space.” And we organized arts events. So we had the Tragic But Brave Roadshow. And we went around Bristol fly posting, “The Tragic But Brave Roadshow are coming to Easton Community Centre.” We had Ian Stanton and Johnny Crescendo. And Wonder Barbara, Barbara Lisicki. And Julie McNamara 00:15:20]. And they would do cabaret, and sing songs like Choices And Rights In Our Lives, and Crip Without A Chip, and The Glee Club. And it was just fantastic. And the Easton Community Centre was packed with people who had all come to see this cabaret of political Disabled people. And we shook Bristol.

Megan:
Well, that sounds absolutely amazing.

Penny:
I’m just going to switch my oven on.

Megan:
That’s absolutely fine. Oven all switched on?

Penny:
Oven switched on. I just got to put my [inaudible 00:16:35] in, in about 10 minutes.

Megan:
That’s absolutely fine. Okay. So that was a lot. But it was really interesting. So I’m going to go back to the beginning. I know you talked a little bit about what kind of brought you into the Avon Coalition with your letter. Was that the only thing that inspired you to kind of join the Coalition? Or were there other things that really were pivotal in moving you in that direction?

Penny:
No. I kind of, it was … Well, I guess somebody just made me aware that the Coalition was beginning to exist. And I guess I needed … I couldn’t understand. I was really feeling my exclusion and discrimination. And I didn’t feel like there was anyone to talk to, or to connect with about it. There’s lots of professionals, non-disabled professionals. But I kind of … I guess I’d been always been fairly sort of politically minded. So I was building on that kind of foundation, really. Not that I would say I was particularly conscious in any respect really. But I was definitely not in a particularly good place. And I needed to do something positive. And so it didn’t take much. It took that person to say, “There’s this meeting, and it’s happening tomorrow night.” And something inside me told me to get to that meeting. It was quite simple, really. It changed my life. And that’s it.

Megan:
That’s amazing.

Penny:
Yeah.

Megan:
That is amazing.

Penny:
Yeah.

Megan:
So when abouts was this? Was it … What sort of time period-

Penny:
This must’ve been in … I think it must’ve been ’89, or ’88, or ’89. Something like that. It’s definitely late 80s. Yeah.

Megan:
Okay. So that was when you kind of went into the Coalition. And then it was a fairly quick transition to the job.

Penny:
Yeah. So I think I probably went along, I can’t remember when the inaugural meeting of the Coalition was. It should be emblazoned on my memory. I think that they’ve been some time in ’89. And I joined that. So I went along fairly … So yeah. And then I got the job in 1990. Yeah.

Megan:
So-

Penny:
[crosstalk 00:20:12].

Megan:
Yeah. Definitely.

Building a political movement and confronting power

Penny (00:20:15):
Yeah. I mean, I have to say that I was doing … I was definitely in need of work, and work that was meaningful to me. And I didn’t know jobs called development has existed. I didn’t know that you could work in something that was political with a small P. That was about people changing their lives, and having an impact on the world. So it was kind of, for me it had that … There was the kind of theory, and the theoretical framework, and the sort of intellectual side. But with the very practical side of, “What does this mean? What does this mean for us in our lives now?” And of course it was all [inaudible 00:21:21] by wanting that change for us to be able to live our lives. Yeah.

Megan:
No, yeah, that’s really interesting. So when you moved into the new job, obviously you’ve mentioned it’s all about raising consciousness and raising awareness. Did you have any issues or pushbacks? I know you said a bit about being problematic. Could you talk about that a little bit? Because obviously it’s a different [crosstalk 00:22:01]-

Penny:
It was hugely problematic. I think … Because as Disabled people, we had so little autonomy or choice over what happened to us. So people were in … The people that went to Day Centres didn’t have to choice and control about what happened to them. Other people did. So it wasn’t their door to let me through, if you [inaudible 00:22:32] to me. And it wasn’t their place to say, “Yeah, let’s have a meeting.” So the first thing I had to do was to ring or contact the manager of the Day Centre and say, “I’d like a meeting with Disabled people.” And then I’d say, “And I don’t want any workers or non-disabled people there.” And that time was just, “What are these people like?” And I think … But also you have to be in a sort of strong place, don’t you, as a Disabled person to understand why that isn’t an insult, or is not being rude to anyone. It’s about us taking our space. And you just can’t …

Penny:
It’s like a group of women getting together, or a group of Black people getting together. Your conversation is different when you’re in a collective of Disabled people. And I wanted to encourage people to be able to be free to talk about thing they want to talk about, what support they needed to live their life. And if that meant, could there be changes in the way the Day Centre worked that was more empowering, then that’s what that was about. And then, I mean it was … There were people that understood. And then there were people … Disabled people were saying, “We want to speak for ourselves,” when there was so many people speaking for us. And unfortunately, I think there now. So you had the big charities. You had the professions.

Penny:
And we were disrupting all of that. We were saying, “We want inclusive education.” We were saying, “We want … Meetings should be in accessible premises.” There was something called the [inaudible 00:24:53] the Community Care Act, it’s like so who speaks for who. And then that enshrined something called Carers. So then it was like … So then whose voice … So we were challenging. We were challenging everything. And for the first time ever, we had people paid to do that, so we could be at the meetings. And it was about Disabled people are speaking for ourselves. And that collective strength was so important.

Penny:
You needed that sustenance from other people. We were in it together. But it was … There was huge resistance. And a lot of pain I’d say, because we wanted people to confront the power relationships. And that’s very hard, isn’t it? It’s like as a white person confronting our power, my power and what that means. And that unless I change something, then Black people won’t have equity. And it’s the same with Disabled people. And were very forceful in our … What we were looking for, which was to live our lives freely. It isn’t such a big thing to ask for, is it really? Yeah.

Megan:
Yeah.

Penny:
And of course this was happening nationally. We were very aware of what was happening nationally at other organisations of Disabled people. So the Disabled people’s movement was our source of strength. Yeah.

Campaigning for equality in our lives

Megan (00:27:07):
Amazing. So I know you’ve spoken about quite like a broad range of aims. Were there any specific objectives of kind of the Coalition? Or was it just the larger aim of, “We deserve to be equal too.”

Penny:
No, well we had a whole … There are the kind of independent living principles. So we brought into the kind of national, so the UPI … So Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation and their principles. And so our sort of starting point was that we will campaign for equality in our lives. And we had a number of sub-groups. So we were looking for Inclusive Education. We were looking for independence. And at that time we wanted Direct Payments. And we wanted to be able to go to work. And we wanted to be able to be housed. We wanted access to public transport. We wanted to have our culture and our arts recognized, and to have access to culture and arts. To have our story understood and written, to see ourselves in media and in the world around us. And for the environment to be accessible, and for attitudes and through democracy, for that to be accessible. So it was transformational, but we were very … We put a lot of work into … We worked for a long time with Avon County Council on things like Independent Living and Inclusive Education.

Penny:
So they adopted in … Or was it Bristol City Council? So we worked really hard. I think there was definitely somebody adopted an Inclusive Education policy. I think it must’ve been Avon. And that was the result of our hard work. And people, meetings, public meetings being in accessible buildings. So we had some very specific goals in terms of that, like direct payments. And we had working groups on all of these things.

Megan:
Okay. So how long were you in the job role for?

Penny:
So I just need to put my potatoes in.

Megan:
That’s fine.

Penny:
Oh, somebody’s at my door. [inaudible 00:30:54] answer my door.

Megan:
Okay.

Penny:
I’m sorry.

Megan:
No, that’s okay.

Penny:
Excuse me. So I kept thinking … I think should know these dates. You think you’ll remember them forever. So I was in that job for about three or four years. And then … So two things happened. So we built up the Centre for Integrated Living, which became Avon CIL and then now {organisationWECIL, West of England Centre for Integrated Living}. And we had these long debates about should we separate the Coalition and the CIL, Centre for Integrated Living, Centre for Inclusive Living. And it was decided that we would create two organisations, because we were one. And so in the time that I was the development worker, the organisation grew a lot.

Penny:
And Avon Centre for Integrated Living it was called then, I think. And then at the same time there was the local government reorganisation. So Avon County Council was disbanded, and replaced by four local authorities. So the job that I then … So when that happened, there was the coordination of the Coalition role, which became the West of England Coalition of Disabled People. So I got that job. So I became the Coordinator of what was then the West of England Coalition of Disabled People. So that was at a time when, so we had four unitary authorities to work with. That must’ve been 1995. So I must’ve done the Community Development job for five years, yeah.

Penny:
And in that time, we’d really … You could see the point of community development. It’s like we had a really good membership. We had really great turnout at meetings. The whole point of that job was about growing Disabled people and our connections with each other, and our activism. And although I did spend quite a lot of time in meetings with other people, my main job was with Disabled people. And in the end, so then I became the Coordinator of the West of England Coalition. And that was really about fundraising and kind of keeping the organisation going across four unitary authorities. Yeah.

Megan:
That’s a pretty comprehensive job.

Penny:
Yes, it was very, very busy. But we did well. Because most of the new unitary authorities wanted a way of … I guess what we established was that local authorities needed to speak to Disabled people, about Disabled people’s issues. So things like … That’s where BDEF came from was the idea of the Forums where about Disabled people having our say about the service that … And not just the services that particularly related to us, but the City [and] of the four unitary authorities. And that was really interesting, because a lot of the authorities, they were … They have no overall control. So there’s a lot … And because they were new, there was a lot of room for discussion and debate about which direction they wanted to go in.

Penny:
And so then there was a … We had a development worker. And then also the Community Care Act was … Did something happen around that time? Something happened around that time which was about use of voice. It kind of enshrined use of voice. And also we had young Disabled people’s mentoring. So we had some … We built relationships in Social Services with people who would come to us. And then we would get to a point where we could build things together, what today would be called co-design. I think we invented co-design. And we were kind of reaping the fruits of kind of five years of work, really I think.

Penny:
And then in 1997, I went to be the groups Development Manager for the British Council of Organisations of Disabled People. Which doesn’t exist anymore. But that was like the national organisation of Disabled People’s Organisations. That was … So I … That was … Got to work with Disabled people all over the country. And we had very strong ties with Manchester Coalition of Disabled People. And I had a lot of connections with them through the whole period. Yeah.

The last ten years

Megan (00:37:23):
So that’s again, very comprehensive. It’s really, really interesting. So obviously because you’ve been active for a while, how do you feel looking back on it now, how do you feel the aims back then kind of compared to what’s going on say in the last 10 years?

Penny:
Well, I’m not as active as I was, and ought to be. I’m active in the sense that I live my life and I go to work, and I try and use the influence that I have to increase equality. But I think generally across equalities, I think we’ve gone backwards. And I think that was true for the Disabled people’s movement. And obviously there are lots of people who have kind of been carrying on the good fight, which is fantastic. And I don’t say that … So for example, we campaigned for anti-discrimination legislation. That was the big thing that we were campaigning for in the early 90s, nationally.

Penny:
And BCODP paid for a big research project, and a seminal book that kind of charted the discrimination against Disabled people. And they brought in the Disability Discrimination Act, which basically that legalized discrimination against Disabled people. It created something called justifiable discrimination. But it did move things a little bit, I guess. So when I think back now, I can get on a bus now. And I still sadly feel that thrill of excitement when I get on a bus. Because it’s just like … Yeah. And so there are things that have moved on probably because of European legislation. And public buildings are physically accessible. And Bristol City Council would routinely kind of say, BSL … There are sort of options, if you like.

Penny:
But I think in terms of us as a movement, I think many of us kind of moved in our sort of careers. Which that’s a whole other discussion about whether that, or what that means, what that does. Did we have enough of a kind of legacy? Greater Manchester [Coalition] of Disabled People have really invested in young people, young Disabled people. And I think Disabled people in the last 10 years have been under attack. Austerity has undermined our position significantly. And I think we’re in a really precarious position. And when I think about where we are in terms of our right to speak for ourselves, the kind of whole co-design thing. Where is that?

Penny:
And that’s serious. It’s like, “Really? We have to do all of this again?” We got to a point where Social Care Assessments were kind of moving into something akin to a kind of self-assessment. And that took a long time for people to kind of that that’s okay, that people aren’t going to go, “Oh, well, just how … ” Abuse the system. And I think we’ve just gone so far back. And the resource went for Disabled people’s organisations. And I’ll be interested to know what you think. But I think we need to be united. There’s lots of different people doing different things. And perhaps what we’re not doing enough of is coming together as a collective, and sharing our … For me personally, it’s about putting more time in. Yeah.

Megan:
So I know you mentioned BCODP. Could you just say what that organisation is?

Penny:
It was the British Council of Organisations of Disabled People. So it was the umbrella organisation for organisations running control by Disabled people across England, Scotland, Wales. And the fact that it was organisations of Disabled people was so important. Yeah. Then you get into the business of what is an organisation of Disabled people? Yeah.

Megan:
Okay. So we’ve covered quite a lot today, which is great. Is there anything else you’d like to kind of bring up that I maybe haven’t probed? Just about any notable things, or anything that you think might be-

Penny:
Well, there’s so much really. I think we made a really big difference. I think we were … And we were united and … Yeah, we made our presence felt in a really … I think we were quite effective. And that’s because there were people who had some real insight, investing in community development, and that growing the movement. As well as the kind of policy side of things, the connections with the local authorities and others that were so important to bring about change. And I think there’s so, so much. There’s so many newsletters, there’s so many debates, there’s so much to learn I think. I don’t think we’ve kind of … We’ve not done that kind of looking back and reflecting, and understanding. But I’d like to think that we have made it a better place for Disabled people, younger Disabled people.

Wrapping up

Megan (00:45:36):
Oh, lovely. Sorry. I know I haven’t received the consent form through. So what I will do is, I’ll hold off on sending this recording over to our group file until I get the consent form back. And yeah, this is just a complete formality, but do you require any restrictions on the use or availability of your interview, or any part of it now or in the future?

Penny:
What does that mean?

Megan:
So that just means, after this interview, is there any part of it that you wouldn’t want to be submitted to the museum’s service? Or are you perfectly happy? Obviously you can change your mind in the future, and that’s absolutely fine as well.

Penny:
Oh, okay. Yeah. Yeah. No, no. At the moment, in terms of uses, I guess I’m trusting them to … We are all trusting them to use it wisely, not put it in the wrong hands. But no, that’s fine. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Megan:
Perfect. Okay. So I’ll basically get a transcription made of this interview. And then obviously I know you’re very busy. And so if there’s anything that maybe-

Penny:
I’m not too busy though. So don’t worry.

Megan:
Okay. Okay. So I will be in-

Penny:
It’s really important. I’m very committed to it. And I think the whole project is fantastic. I’m very … I would’ve liked to have been on the steering group, but I couldn’t be. So I think it’s so important. Yeah. So well done for doing it.

Megan:
Thank you.

Penny:
Yeah. And I don’t know about you, but that’s not the point of the interview.

Megan:
Well, I’m sure we will meet soon when everybody’s allowed out.

Penny:
Yeah.

Megan:
So I’ll go through the transcription. And then if there’s anything that I think we could maybe delve into deeper, I’ll get in touch with you. I’ll be in touch with you anyway.

Penny:
Yeah.

Megan:
But yeah, I’ll-

Penny:
I [inaudible 00:47:46] very specific. I have … It’s been very broad brush, hasn’t it? Yeah.

Megan:
No, it’s been very, very interesting though.

Penny:
Okay.

Megan:
So yeah, I’ll be in touch. And then we could potentially do another interview in the future if that’s [crosstalk 00:47:59].

Penny:
Did you interview Ruth?

Megan:
I haven’t, no. I think it’s somebody else with Ruth.

Penny:
Are you interviewing Alun 00:48:06]?

Megan:
Yes.

Penny:
Yes. He and I. We were the two. He was the other worker. But he’ll tell you all about that. It’s very hard doing this and not talking about other people. Because it was so … It wasn’t about me, it was about us. Yeah.

Megan:
No, I completely understand that. But hopefully we will get a very broad view [crosstalk 00:48:40]-

Penny:
I need to let you go back to work. Yeah.

Megan:
It’s all good.

Penny:
Yeah.

Megan:
I hope whatever was in the oven is well [crosstalk 00:48:48].

Penny:
The potatoes. Yeah, I’ve got some people coming to lunch. Yeah.

Megan:
But so-

Penny:
All right.

Megan:
I will speak to you soon then. And thank you-

Penny:
Thanks very much.

Megan:
… so much, Penny.

Penny:
No, it’s lovely.

Megan:
Thank you.

Penny:
Nice to meet you. Yeah.

Megan:
Nice to meet you too.

Penny:
Okay. Bye.

Megan:
Bye.

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