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Disability and what I learned from my Nan

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Today is International Day of People with Disabilities and I want to share a story about my maternal grandmother.

My siblings and I called her Nanna and she loved baking. She wasn’t a “Great British Bake off” style artist with a huge repertoire of pastries and pies to her name but she did a few things really well – and fast! If visitors turned up unannounced she would throw together ingredients and have tea and scones ready by the time people had taken their coats off.

She often answered the door with a tea towel over her wrist and when I was young, I thought it was because she liked to be ever-ready to spring into action with that next batch of fairy cakes. Ready, set, go!

That was partly the reason. The other reason was she was covering up her congenital amputation – she was born without her right hand. I discussed this recently with my mum who said she thought that nanna answered the door covering herself in this way because she didn’t want the person on the other side to feel uncomfortable. Again, that probably wasn’t the full story and frankly who wants to be gawped at?  But I learned as I got older that her personal journey hadn’t always been that easy.

As a child this was all a bit lost on me because this was just my Nan and to me, she was practically superhuman. She was confident, forthright, a leader in the community. She rode a bike until she was 70, played the piano at church, had worked as a bookkeeper and was a pretty fast typist. She raised a lot of money for charity and always had young people from church staying in her home because she believed in supporting people. She was the most competent person that I knew.

I don’t think she considered herself as having a disability. It’s a complicated word and something that some people don’t identify with, although some people do. In some ways, my Nanna’s lack of a right hand became a positive to her because it gave her something else. She used to say that she was glad she was born the way she was because it gave her extra empathy. She knew first-hand what it was like to have people assume things about her, but she always pointed out that there were others who had more difficult lives than hers. Then again, I know that isn’t always the case with everyone.

Nonetheless, as a child I always put great store by one of her most often repeated phrases, that “you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover”. I know that’s a cliché but in her context, it had extra meaning.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed most this year is being able to study for and complete a coaching practitioner course, supported by Colt. One of the coaching models that we studied was the Co-active model and the key philosophy behind this is that people are ‘naturally resourceful, creative and whole’. This really struck a chord with me. I thought about someone I loved who was most definitely resourceful and creative and whole and thought about how sometimes people assumed (quite wrongly) that she wasn’t.

My Nanna was a great example of someone who was hugely adaptable and she believed others could be too. Even if people begin from a different starting position, they have untapped potential and can always grow. This is a mindset that I try to take on board when I’m coaching but I think it’s useful anytime we’re working with others.

Another lesson she taught me was that kindness, acceptance and support go a long way. She role modelled that and encouraged us to do the same. It was only after she died and I spoke to some of her oldest friends, that I was told that she had struggled for a long time with a sense of shame and that she lacked confidence. Things changed for her when she found a close circle of friends, acceptance and support. That’s why she was so determined to be there for other people because she knew the transformative power of being accepted and included.

International Day of Persons with Disabilities was created to champion the belief that ‘Disability equals diversity, not disadvantage’ and this is what I learnt first-hand from my Nanna. On days like today, it’s important to make sure we are creating environments where people are accepted for being themselves.

Rachel Collins, Colt’s Head of Diversity & Inclusion 

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Rachel Collins

03 December 2019

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