The Sunflower Conversations

Understanding, acceptance, and empowerment

March 07, 2021 Hidden Disabilities Sunflower
The Sunflower Conversations
Understanding, acceptance, and empowerment
Chapters
The Sunflower Conversations
Understanding, acceptance, and empowerment
Mar 07, 2021
Hidden Disabilities Sunflower

Mark Isherwood, Elected Regional Member of the Senedd, (Welsh Parliament), explains how the pandemic has affected people of all ages, in particular people from disadvantaged groups. Reduced accessibility to support, education and even shopping has had a big impact. 

Mark is a champion of the social model that advocates for making societal changes to ensure a fairer more equal society for people with disabilities.   

We also talk about Please give me space. A social distancing awareness campaign to help anyone experiencing challenges to maintain a safe space. Launched by the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower and the RNIB. 

Hosted by Paul Shriever and Chantal Boyle from Hidden Disabilities Sunflower.

Visit the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower website.

Visit the Please give me space website.

Show Notes Transcript

Mark Isherwood, Elected Regional Member of the Senedd, (Welsh Parliament), explains how the pandemic has affected people of all ages, in particular people from disadvantaged groups. Reduced accessibility to support, education and even shopping has had a big impact. 

Mark is a champion of the social model that advocates for making societal changes to ensure a fairer more equal society for people with disabilities.   

We also talk about Please give me space. A social distancing awareness campaign to help anyone experiencing challenges to maintain a safe space. Launched by the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower and the RNIB. 

Hosted by Paul Shriever and Chantal Boyle from Hidden Disabilities Sunflower.

Visit the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower website.

Visit the Please give me space website.

Speaker 1:

Today, we're going to be talking to Mark Isherwood.

Mark Isherwood:

I'm glad to be here. As you say, I'm Mark Isherwood, a member of the Senedd. I'm representing North Wales. I've been a member since 2003, so just coming to the end of my fourth term. There's been a lot of change in that time, in the work of the Senedd and how it's structured, how it's developed as a separate parliament to the Welsh Government. But I don't think any of the change we've seen has been as huge as the change over the last 12 months in all our lives because of the pandemic.

Speaker 1:

First of all, can I ask you, what is Senedd?

Mark Isherwood:

Basically it's the Welsh term for parliament.

Speaker 1:

How long have you been a Senedd regional member, Mark?

Mark Isherwood:

I was first elected in May 2003. So at the end of this term, end of next month or early April, I'll have been a member for 18 years.

Paul Shriever:

What led you to this career? What did you do before you got into politics?

Mark Isherwood:

As a child, I wasn't really aware very much of party politics, although my father was interested. Not for the party I represent as a matter of fact. My degree was in politics and that's not learning what to think or which party to support, but learning how to think and about the broader picture, including the different political ideologies.

Mark Isherwood:

But then I got a career in the building society sector. I think 1997, like many of us do, I was shouting at the television screen at some politician or other, and my wife turned around and said, "Either shut up or do something about it." I joined up a few years later, found myself, firstly involved in local politics and then being elected to the Senedd.

Paul Shriever:

I also have read that you're on the board of a number of committees, your membership on Buddies Autism Centre, North Wales Disability Resources Centre. Can you just tell me a little bit about the various committees that you're on?

Mark Isherwood:

So within the Welsh Parliament, or the Senedd there's the formal committees. So I'm currently on the Finance Committee, for example. And then there's the cross-party groups within the large parliament which I also mentioned, when I chair sixth, co-chair the seventh, which is Violence Against Women and Children. Those I chair include Autism, Disability, another one - Neurological Conditions, which covers all neurological conditions. So it's a wide network supported by the Wales Neurological Alliance and charities, representing conditions from more commonly known conditions like MS and Parkinson's and motor neuron disease through the rare, rare diseases and everything in between - stroke, epilepsy, and goodness knows what else. I'm honoured to be asked to take a number of positions in the broader community. Not so much on the board as such, but other things like patron for or vice-president. So the North Wales Disability Resource Centre you referred to I'm the vice-president, an honorary position.

Paul Shriever:

Do you ever have any time for yourself, Mark?

Mark Isherwood:

At the moment, not really. Though I try and get a line at the weekend, but...

Paul Shriever:

What has changed for you in practical terms since March of last year? How do you think the pandemic has affected people with hidden disabilities?

Mark Isherwood:

Hugely. Obviously for all of us a year ago, we wouldn't have imagined that I'd be doing this interview with you on a screen like this. But it's also been disabling for many people who didn't have access to technology, particularly older people, but also for children and young people that couldn't attend school. And it's tended to be those of a more disadvantaged who haven't had access to equipment and haven't necessarily had the support they needed, in the way that most children in most households have.  We've done lots of work with RNIB and guide dogs who produced the whale of joint report quite early in the pandemic regarding shared space. The fact that not only was there increased hate crime because not people particularly people who are blind or partially sighted couldn't socially distance and didn't deliberately not do so, they simply couldn't see the redesigned street scenes, and so on. In many cases hadn't factored in disabled people at the beginning.

Paul Shriever:

Is this something now that you've had to focus on much more?

Mark Isherwood:

Absolutely. I've been aware for 20 years nearly of the guide dog campaigns, particularly on shared space and being out with them numerous times in town centres where things are not as they might be with a blindfold or a human guide dog on my arm where I can't see myself or whatever, or a white stick getting some first-hand experience. I've also been out, for example, with somebody taking the role of carer, pushing their wheelchair and experiencing the barriers in practice that they're encountering that otherwise I only read about, unless you involve lived experience directly, you will never move beyond awareness training, which is hugely dumb because it's mandatory, which is usually a one-off event with a plaque on the wall or certificate on the wall and no follow through. So how do you achieve understanding, acceptance and empowerment?

Mark Isherwood:

But it's quite simple, really. You talk with people because they're experts in their own lives. They can tell you immediately what the issues are and help you design and deliver the solutions and then monitor the impact of that, because we never get it right the first time. So let's learn from what we do and keep improving together. It would appear at the beginning of the pandemic, partly because of the speed that everything had to change, partly because of all of the misunderstanding, too much was changed without considering things like physical barriers, but also communication. I had a meeting yesterday with Princeton's the Cystic Fibrosis Trust. And one of the biggest problems that their members encountered was lack of understandable and clear communication when announcements were made, about how that impacted on them because they were in the shielding group. But we had similar concerns raised with us in a meeting I had months ago in North Wales with self advocates. Self advocates see adults with learning difficulties. And that's one of the key things they raised. Nobody's thinking about our communication needs.

Chantal Boyle:

The groups that you've been talking about have really had to kind of shout and push themselves to the front. But thankfully through kind of the power of the media, it has helped for these groups to gain a bit of traction, hasn't it? COVID has in some respects set the disability movement back quite some time because of the fact that we're referring to people as vulnerable. And I know that many groups really didn't like to have that word associated with their conditions or their disability.

Mark Isherwood:

The term 'vulnerable' is a hot beat, it's used constantly by politicians of all queues. It's the in-word to capture everything. Like the term 'disability' and 'social model'. People aren't disabled by their impairments, they're disabled by the barriers, which society places in their way. And we should all work together with them to identify, agree and remove those barriers.

Chantal Boyle:

I know that you've said you've been inundated with them correspondence from your constituencies, including businesses. What has been the main challenges that they've been reporting to you from the constituency... constituents, sorry. And from local businesses?

Mark Isherwood:

There are still issues. Supermarkets now generally got their acts together better in terms of delivery, but there's still issues around the many people who don't have much money over the charges or minimum orders. They can't afford them. So I know that your sector's trying to persuade the supermarkets at the moment to remove those delivery charges or minimum orders so that people aren't further disadvantaged or discriminated against.

Chantal Boyle:

In the news there's been a lot of attention given to people with learning disabilities. Jo Whiley has been very vocal and using her sister's experience to bring that to the forefront. So do you see now a bit more of a sigh of relief from the community that have got learning disabilities, getting onto that register, so they're putting them to the front of the queue to get a vaccine?

Mark Isherwood:

I first raised this in the Welsh Parliament months ago at the request of constituents who were encountering this and when I raised this specifically, it was on behalf of families with members who were on the autism spectrum and have learning difficulties or people with learning difficulties because they've been two separate issues. And the response I got at that time wasn't very encouraging. It was very much... Many of them would've already been in one of the priority groups. So they'll be okay, won't they? Not recognizing the broader issues at stake, not just for the individual, but also for carers, perhaps as well. So I was delighted to hear the UK announcements.

Chantal Boyle:

You have been like a poster guy for "Please give me space". Could you explain how you came across it?

Mark Isherwood:

So, RNIB notified me that they were going to be launching this campaign and asked if I would support it and promote it and do a film for them wearing the things that they posted to me, which I did and send it back to them. So I was just pleased to help, not just because I was paid to help, but because I've had casework like this and knew it was a real issue.

Paul Shriever:

Do you feel it's something personally that is needed?

Mark Isherwood:

Yes, it is needed. It has to be broadly understood. What we must seek to avoid and all the challenges of stating this, is a multiplicity of different badges and face masks, and goodness knows what else, the wristbands and so on. All the facts are saying the same thing, but specific to a particular condition and what we need something, the commonality that's easily understood and shared with the broader public.

Chantal Boyle:

Let me just quickly ask you, what are you most looking forward to doing when the restrictions lift?

Mark Isherwood:

Going to the pub with my son and my daughters and my new grandchildren who I'll probably have a chance to meet.

Chantal Boyle:

Lovely. Thank you so much for your time. Mark, it's been really great to meet you and chat with you and find out all the stuff you've been doing.