Kamran Mallick on Cultural Bias, Intersectionality and the Power of the Disabled Community

For Kamran Mallick, one of the most prominent Disabled figures in the United Kingdom, his fight for the fair treatment of the Disabled community both at home and worldwide is one that began from his experiences in both Pakistan and the UK. He tells me more about how mainstream narratives should stop ignoring the Disabled talent that’s out there.
Illustration: Nicole Ng for &ASIAN. She says: 'The illustration captures Kamran Mallick's point about the discrepancies between Nicholas Hamilton, a race driver with cerebral palsy and his (arguably more well-known) brother Formula One driver, Lewis Hamilton, despite the fact that great racing ability has nothing to do with whether one is disabled or not. The drawing is a reflection on what it means for the disabled community when one person succeeds in their sport or their career. Success is shared and carried by all and the effect of inspiration ripples through the community."
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Kamran Mallick on Cultural Bias, Intersectionality and the Power of the Disabled Community

It’s a sunny afternoon in April when Kamran Mallick, the Chief Executive of Disability Rights UK, nods and takes a breath as he thinks over the latest question I’ve put to him. When finally he responds, it’s with the same measured and conscientious tone that’s underpinned our entire conversation.

“The unheard, the forgotten voices, the hidden experiences… our [Disability Rights UK] job is to listen and to amplify that experience through our policy work. To ensure that those in positions of power regularly hear from us in a powerful way about how their decisions impact members of our country.”

Photo via Twitter (@KamranMallick).
Photo via Twitter (@KamranMallick).

Kamran, born in Pakistan and affected by polio at the age of three which impacted his ability to walk, recently appeared tenth in The Shaw Trust’s 2020 Disability Power List 100, which ranks the most influential Disabled figures in the United Kingdom. He’s been the CEO of Disability Rights UK since 2017.

“Our ambition is to grow our following and to have a movement of Disabled people behind us. To speak about what the experiences of Disabled people are like around the country,” he tells me. “Disability and Disabled people, we’re just not talked about as intrinsically part of society.”

It is no secret that the Disabled community not just in the United Kingdom, but around the world, has been hidden away and sidelined, reduced to mere afterthoughts only when it suits certain narratives or political statements. In short, the Disabled community often finds their impairments turned into a plot device or weaponised in a way that generally serves to continually silence them at best, and dehumanise them at worst. Kamran remembers such methods and micro-aggressions utilised against him and others like him ever since he was a child, and not just in the UK.

“I’ve had all my formative years in the UK, but certainly in Pakistan, even now, disability doesn’t really exist because people either don’t want to deal with it or confront it,” he explains. “It almost brings shame to the family. There’s this whole cultural element that if the family has a Disabled member the mother or father did something in their former lives that meant that, whoever your god is, this has been your punishment. If you have no money, I imagine most Disabled people either die or end up begging up in the street. If you have money, you might have a more comfortable life, but you’re hidden away, you’re not at the forefront of your family. There aren’t many direct words or phrases that talk positively about Disabled people. In my language there are very negative words.

I think there is a real battle between young Disabled people in the UK who have families that are rooted in traditional ways of their culture. There can be a real friction between the two, where the worry might be focused on making sure that person is taken care of: such as when the young person wants to get married, focusing on if their [potential] partner can provide that. As though the notion of getting married is to find someone who can look after them.

Here in the UK, we often talk about providing support for Disabled people so they can choose to live independently, but that’s at odds with certain cultures because it doesn’t fit how people think it should be.

Where there are positives, and there are positives in every culture: in my Asian community it’s very family oriented. You have this support network that love you and care for you, so there is a lot of that. It’s core in our family beliefs, being close knit with your family. One [culture] is not better than the other, it’s just a very different way of having your family life set up.”

Besides being CEO for Disability Rights UK, Kamran has worked for the spinal charity Aspire and currently is a board member for the Lyric Theatre, Lloyds Bank Foundation and Wheels for Wellbeing. Across his career he has served in capacities such as being the Chief Executive of Action on Disability and in 2019 was named on Green Park Ltd’s BAME 100 Business Leaders. This only skims the surface of the amount of work he has done to help improve people’s lives by encouraging and ensuring that workplaces and public spaces are truly inclusive for the Disabled community.

One could say that Kamran is one example that displays the best and most wonderful elements of intersectionality: how the complexities and rich life experiences of such multifaceted people can lead them to do incredible things that change the world we live in. The joy of being human is never more purely on display than in the people who embrace the intersectionality that is within them. Yet the flip side – and the darker side – of this manifests itself in all the ways different communities are punished and persecuted by other members of society, and within one being such discrimination is amplified if they are members of several persecuted communities.

“When [multiples identities] are layered, that individual will of course experience multiple inequalities,” says Kamran. “A white Disabled person’s experience will be fundamentally different to that of a  Black person’s. It will often be shown through quite subtle inequalities that aren’t always overt but which lead to that worse experience. Take the inequalities I as an Asian person experience and that I also experience as a Disabled person and just layer them. There’s an assumption made about what my beliefs might be because of my colour, and then also stuff about ‘What does it mean to have a disabled person in our business or in our society?’ So you see the multiple inequalities that people experience.

We [people] often don’t have a single identity that makes up who we are. I’m male, Disabled, Asian. Your terms will be different to mine, but we also have lots of things that we have in common. For some people to say: ‘Oh, well this year we’ll deal with gender and then next year we’ll deal with race and then we might deal with disability…’ It should be intersectionality. What are the barriers that we all experience and what can we do to overcome them? Because you’ll find often the changes you make for Disabled people benefit everybody.”

During our chat, we talked for a while about motorsport and in particular Formula 1, a sport both of us follow avidly. Both of us note that the ability to be a great racing driver has nothing to do with whether one has an impairment or not. After all, there are over a million Disabled motorists in the UK alone and great racing drivers such as Nathalie McGloin and Robert Kubica prove that if you’re good enough to succeed at the top level, you’ll still rise to the top. Yet Disabled racing drivers are still few and far between. As a big fan of Lewis Hamilton, Kamran points out to me the discrepancies experienced by the Disabled community just by reflecting on the careers of Lewis and his brother Nicholas (also a racing driver), who has cerebral palsy.

“Look at the difference in their lives between where Lewis Hamilton has got to, and where his brother [Nicholas] has got to,” Kamran analyses. “There’s just no comparison, and that’s with having someone in your family that is such a high achiever. Even then he is not able to have anywhere near the same status. That speaks volumes. Lewis talks very much about issues around colour and there are so many parallels to be seen between other groups and communities who are excluded.

He tells me more about the us and them attitude that the Disabled community has had to deal with since time immemorial. How often they’re framed within the narratives of getting benefits from society and is (often falsely) living some cushy life as a result, or how disability usually ends up in the news only when someone mentally ill has attacked someone. And that’s if they’re mentioned at all. Kamran noted recently on his Twitter that during the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately two out of three British deaths from the virus come from the Disabled community, a statistic that I doubt many have seen in mainstream reporting.

“It comes down to how people who have influence in certain circles never think of diversity in its truest form,” he tells me. “If it’s utilised, it’s usually in piecemeal, tokenistic gestures and Disabled people are absolutely at the bottom of the ladder. If there’s a hierarchy of diversity, Disabled people are off the chart. We’re not really on it.

When I think of people that I know that have done incredibly well in their chosen field, often it’s because someone has chosen them or identified that there’s something about them which leads people to choose to support them to help become successful. As a Disabled person you don’t get that, because the first impression is that you aren’t going to be able to do anything, that you aren’t on the same calibre. In a business it’s seen as a ‘nice to do’ thing as opposed to an essential thing. Very few [businesses] go: ‘We want Disabled people in our business, how can we get them, encourage them?’ The narrative doesn’t change.”

Kamran tells me about the nuances that are often missed in different business sectors. He gives me an example in the form of how medical professionals are trained and the extent to which training in the medical sector actually focuses on the lived experiences and social lives of the Disabled community as opposed to just thinking about how they need to be ‘fixed’. Another example he questions is why buildings are still being created that aren’t accessible: why such features of inclusion become something like an add-on, as opposed to just something that must be implemented in the design of every building. Is teaching around accessibility and disability incorporated into the training of young architects or is this completely glossed over? A further example Kamran gives me from his own lived experience comes down to how businesses treat young Disabled people looking for work and how much this affects them in their youth.

“My dad always encouraged me to be independent. He always said to me: ‘You’re going to have to work twice as hard as everybody else just to get half as far’. He was saying that when I was in my teenage years at school. When I was about to go to university he helped me move out and helped me set up to live independently outside of the family home. He told me they did this because: ‘I and [your] mother are still young and able, we can help you get all the skills that you’re going to need one day, because one day we won’t be able to.’ But a lot of young Disabled people don’t get that opportunity.

In my youth I also had this big dream of working in the private sector and making a lot of money, but what I learned very quickly when I went out into the world of work was that all the doors were closed to me. It didn’t matter what A-Levels I had got. It was all about my disability, the fact I was a wheelchair user, the fact that it’s not a hidden impairment. I spent a whole year looking for work and I couldn’t get an interview. They saw me as a difficult person to get into work.

Before, I had just accepted that this was how it was. But it was only when I got my first job that I really started thinking about how all of this was not fair and that there must be millions that have the same experience as me. I wondered how I could use my negative experiences and turn them into positive ones.”

Kamran is one of those people that truly believes in the world he sees out there on the horizon: one where all people are accepted as they are, one where the Disabled community is visible and not sidelined, both in everyday life and in the images we see on our screens. I ask him to pick three short term things he believes could make a huge difference to society right now, if he had the power to implement absolutely anything.

“We still don’t have proper true, inclusive education,” he replies, addressing how Disabled and non-disabled children might not interact at all during their formative years. “If you can tackle these topics as part of citizenship and have young children mixing, it’s those students that grow into adults that remember these things, rather than just learning about inequalities when you’re in your thirties. It means people would recognise there’s nothing to fear, that we can design our world in a way that doesn’t exclude people and it would impact the way people think and behave.

Then, I would like to see far more Disabled people have access to positions of power, especially in government. I would love to see prominent MPs that are also Disabled people. But to have them in those positions not because they are Disabled people, but because they’ve got talent. There are millions of talented Disabled people that get missed and don’t get seen. If you have that diversity of thinking at the highest level, their lived experience will just naturally come into the work that they’re doing. I would hope that this would start to shift the landscape.

The third thing… In order for us to change the narrative around Disabled people, around Black people, around communities that are often excluded: if we can find a way for these movements to join forces. Sometimes it takes powerful voices for the world to stand up, to take a look and to listen. Our groups and our communities need to come together around these narratives, joining forces where we can have common aims.”

His hopes are hopes that are held dearly by many around the world, no more so than by many in the Disabled community for which Kamran and many others do so much work. Yet what cannot be ignored is the extent to which Disabled people are judged by much of the non-disabled community so quickly, and how this completely ignores the millions of Disabled citizens that are living full lives and deserve equal opportunities to reach their potential.

“In people there’s a nervousness around getting things wrong, so they seek comfort in not doing anything. They often say that Disabled people are hard to reach,” Kamran adds, with just a slight shake of the head. “We’re not hard to reach. We’re out there. We’re everywhere. Regardless of what your views are, at some point in your life, whether that’s through illness or age, you will experience many of the things we [the Disabled community] experience that stop us from succeeding. We’re all living longer and with that comes impairment. It’s in all of our interests to own this. I’d tell young Disabled people to be proud of who you are and your unique set of skills and experiences: it’s incredibly valuable. Be proud of that.

There are over one billion Disabled people in the world, and that’s not an insignificant number.”

Kamran Mallick can be found on Twitter, or via the Disability Rights UK website.