Naming and Shaming: The Science Fiction Book Group

*ETA: I had a sudden moment of more-madness-than-usual and edited in the direct link to the group, below. Enjoy.*

I’ve decided to start a ‘name and shame’ series here, aimed at organisations and institutions that discriminate against disabled people, exclude us, and don’t follow equality legislation.

Obviously there are some groups and orgs that I can’t name because I’m, let’s say, connected with them in ways that mean I should be careful of what I say. With others, I’m too afraid of repercussions to share the full details of the group (as in this post’s example). So ironically, today I can only shame, not name. But on the whole, I’m able to, and I want to. I go through life giving my time and money to a lot of institutions that then feel they can treat me less favourably than others, or directly discriminate against me, because I’m disabled. This is a daily occurrence for many disabled people, and I don’t think we should sit back and stew silently over it. And many people don’t – the other side of our highly connected age is the ability to share the names and details of the companies that treat us like crap. Allies and fellow disabled people can then choose what they want to do about this. I personally don’t want to frequent establishments and services that have treated me, or my friends and colleagues, poorly.

Plan and Cancel: Nay and SJ’s Strategy for Life

Meet the heroes of this adventure, SJ and Nay  — the indefatigable Team Jacobs.

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(Well, not really indefatigable, as Nay is regularly very fatigued, but definitely undefeated.) Nay and SJ (a mutant and a… weirdo) travel the universe battling the forces of disablism. Each has their own strengths that compliment those of the other, like any good hero team. Their strategy: to ‘plan and cancel’ – to make sure that Nay doesn’t miss out on life due to the effects of being a mutant in non-mutant society, by making plans and then cancelling if Nay is ill – I mean, having a mutant attack. This way, Nay gets to enjoy a full life as much of the time as possible, not being too afraid to make any plans and never going out as a result. Nay has spent many years teaching herself that cancelling does not make her a bad person (even though our story’s minor antagonists, the Inner Demons from Planet Neurodivergent, spend a lot of time trying to tell her otherwise). Mostly, she’s winning.

However, there is an evil enemy in this story – the enemy of the wonderful ‘plan and cancel’ strategy of the super Team Jacobs. An enemy that would like Nay to give in to the Inner Demons from Planet Neurodivergent, and worse. This enemy is called Disablist Society.

OK, I can’t keep up this metaphor or I’ll get very confused, but you get the idea. 🙂

Meetup.com and the Sci-Fi Book Club That Did Not Understand What ‘Discrimination’ Meant

In these highly connected times, some people start small groups and forget that these, too, have to follow disability equality legislation – no matter how small or unfunded they are. There is a strange idea out there that you have to be some sort of big company to be required to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people. That isn’t true.

Things with the science fiction book club started off quite well. The group leader saw that I was using a wheelchair in my photo, and contacted me to reassure me that the group was on the ground floor of an accessible pub. Some people might have found this a bit odd or creepy, but it was certainly convenient for me. Accessible meet ups of this kind are not too common in London, so I was pleased that I could get into the building. But I mistakenly assumed that the policies and practices of this book group would be equally non-discriminatory.

The problems started when I had to miss two book groups over about a three-month period. I experience severe migraines related to my EDS – and I do mean severe. At this particular time last year, I was experiencing occasional but very nasty episodes of all-day severe pain, dizziness, vomiting, intolerance of almost all light and most sound… Not exactly a great situation in which to attempt to drive across London for a book club. I was as disappointed as anyone could be about having to miss meetings, when I had read and very much enjoyed the books due to be discussed. (In the case of one book, I hadn’t been able to stop talking to SJ about it for weeks, and my disappointment at not being able to go to the discussion was huge.) But my migraines can come on with little warning, and then there’s nothing I can do. On the first occasion, I think I got the first signs of a migraine in the afternoon of the book club evening, so I changed my RSVP to ‘not attending’ the moment I knew I wasn’t going to make it. On another occasion, I believe the migraine came on very suddenly, too late to change my RSVP, but I wrote on the message board for the group explaining that I wasn’t going to make it and that I had disability-related reasons for this. On one further occasion I was a few minutes late because I had just come from a medical appointment at a hospital on the other side of London – literally maybe five minutes late. (That was my first sign that something was wrong – the book group leader was very rude about my lateness, even when I went up to him privately afterwards and explained I’d come from an unavoidable medical appointment. Making me feel like a naughty school child…)

You can probably imagine how I felt when, after the second time, the book group leader sent me one of the nastiest emails I’ve ever received. He made it clear that my ‘behaviour’ was not acceptable, that lateness and cancelling could not be allowed in his book group, that I was preventing other people from coming to the book group, and that I was on my ‘first strike’ and would be removed from the book club after three. When I, nonplussed, replied explaining what disability can mean to someone with chronic illnesses and an autistic spectrum condition, his response was to treat this like an excuse and to talk to me like a naughty child. I made it very clear that disability discrimination is not just about ramps and buildings, and then I left the group.

It’s now several months later. This morning I received an email from the book club host. He has, apparently, recently sent out an email shaming a large number of people for needing to cancel their ‘yes’ RSVPs to book group meetings. In this email, he outlines some of the ‘excuses’ he received. Among these were several cases that were clearly to do with disability and chronic illness. He wanted me to receive this email too, apparently to prove to me that there was ‘nothing personal’ in his response to me. I emphasise: I have left this group and he still felt the need to remind me of how poor my behaviour was, and to tell me about others’ medical situations that have led them to lead to ‘plan and cancel’. One poor person who is shamed in these emails apparently had gastroenteritis during a couple of book group meetings. What a horrendous situation for that person to be in: not only experiencing an extremely painful and activity-limiting illness, but then to be treated like a terrible person for having to miss out on life as a result.

I am under no illusions here: this is a manifestation of our society’s normalcy structure, and what it values (and does not) today. It values those who know when they can be active, and who can be active most of the time. It values those who have ‘standard’, ‘normal’ abilities to get to meetings, and who don’t get ill and have to cancel at the last minute. Normalcy: it’s insidious.

Picture a non-disabled Glorious Leader of a very organised crew. He probably thinks of himself as a hard worker and values efficiency, good time-keeping and all those other things that non-disabled people can take for granted, because society is built for them and their needs, and doesn’t put up barriers against them. He’s probably never had to plan and cancel in his life, and he certainly doesn’t have to on a regular basis. So he never considers putting in place alternative arrangements for those members who do, so that their issues don’t have to affect whether others can come to group meetings or not. (This could be an easy fix with some creative thinking, by the way.) He simply shames those whose lives are not as simple as his (because society isn’t built to fit their bodies or minds), even going so far as to share their medical details with the rest of the group, expecting that this will stop their ‘behaviour’. But all it does is drive away the people who only wanted to join a simple book group for a little bit of evening fun*. People who can’t shape their bodies around normalcy. People who can’t meet the rules and regulations of our Glorious Leader. Who, funnily enough, doesn’t think that other rules (like the Equality Act) have to apply to him.

I’m particularly interested to ponder the relevance of this being a science fiction book group. This saddens me, but it shouldn’t really. SFF culture has long-standing issues with disability. Every time I try to play in their pool, I find that they want me out (and send me off the one with the mouldy access ramp and the cold dirty water). Read some of David Gillon’s recent work on SFF and disability for more.

Our intrepid heroes are currently looking for a new book group that will fit Nay’s mutant body and mind, where the evil non-mutant overlords don’t get to make all the rules based on their needs while ignoring everyone else’s. It’s a struggle to find one that works. But they fight on! (I’m currently considering going to one that sounds lovely but is down some stairs. Swings and roundabouts.)

Be careful of science fiction book groups in the London area. I will share the name of this book group privately, on request, if anyone reading is looking for a group to join and wants to avoid this one.

Next in this series: the restaurant that turned away my father and his hearing dog in a truly appalling way, and have gone on to behave very badly towards him.

*And it’s not like those of us with chronic illness get to have much of this, for gods’ sakes…

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3 responses to “Naming and Shaming: The Science Fiction Book Group

  1. Wow, that’s quite spectacularly faily, isn’t it?

    I know it doesn’t undo the heartache you were caused by this insensitive person and other people like him, but if you’re still looking for a book club, I belong to a goth one that meets once a month at an accessible pub in Central London and doesn’t require RSVPs. There are a handful of members who are there almost every time and probably a dozen or so who make it more occasionally; it’s not a big deal. Quite a few members have disability or at least chronic health issues (I’m not necessarily clear how they define in that regard.) Books are nominated and voted on by the members and can be from any genre, but SFF is probably the most frequent. There are two rounds of voting, the first by online survey and the second in person at the meeting, which also decides the date of the next meeting, so there is that disadvantage to not being able to make it in person. Members don’t have to be goth themselves, just goth-friendly. It’s also a very LGBT-friendly group with several LGBT members. You would be very welcome, and SJ too if they like. PM me for details if you want to give it a try.

  2. Hi Naomi I am a meetup organiser in Edinburgh. Several years ago Meetup changed how members can be logged for not attending. I was concerned at the debate at the time which seemed to find many other organisers seeing their members as problems rather than people who enable them to participate in an activity. The 3 strikes idea was something a few wanted to implement.

    Meetups can be be powerful opportunities for inclusion. As an organiser I want as many people to attend as possible, I want people to have a positive experience. To do that I need to think of individual needs. If a meetup via deliberate or inconsiderate actions excludes people it loses out. If a meetup organiser does not think about how they might include all then the meetup loses out.

    I am not sure meetup HQ would take on board such a problem but it might be worth mentioning to meetup HQ that the group is potentially breaking UK Equality legislation. My experience of meetup is they worry about litigation.

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