Claire Hargreaves spoke to Michaela Hollywood, a campaigner for young disabled people, when she visited Bristol for the final instalment of this year’s Richmond Lecture series.
Michaela Hollywood was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy as a child and has since lived with the disability. Although it affects her on an everyday basis, Michaela has been campaigning about disability rights and raising awareness about living with a disability since she was 17.
Michaela has also completed a Masters degree in public relations, communications and political lobbying at Ulster University, as well as being named one of the BBC’s top 100 inspirational women in 2015.
Michaela has been at the forefront of the influential Trailblazers campaign for Muscular Dystrophy UK, which focuses on the issues facing young people with muscular dystrophy. Launched in 2008, the campaign now has a network of over 700 young people as well as their supporters.
We campaign to remove social barriers that exist for young disabled people. Find out more about our new ambassadors https://t.co/bIv0TUBtiq
— Trailblazers (@MD_Trailblazers) April 13, 2017
‘It all started when I tried to get tickets for a McFly gig and they would only put me at the very back of the arena,’ Michaela told Epigram. ‘I want to choose where I want to sit!’
‘Trailblazers tries to remove social barriers for young disabled people, so that could be accessing higher education, moving around independently, getting to work. All of those little everyday things that are just that bit harder for disabled people because of the barriers that are constructed’.
Part of Michaela’s work involves lobbying the government for better policies and attempting to strengthen the law in ways that would benefit disabled people. Ultimately, she wants to ‘give disabled people the best chance in life.’
I’m hugely honoured to have been included among 100 of the worlds most inspirational women of 2015 by the BBC! https://t.co/n7mAGqCWCZ
— Michaela Hollywood (@KylaHollywood) November 18, 2015
As a former student in Northern Ireland, Michaela knows first hand the problems a disabled student faces. She recognises that more needs to be done, both practically and culturally, to improve the lives of disabled students.
‘The absolute most important thing is normalising disability. At the moment, disability is seen as a bit of a freak show. People need to recognise that disabled people are only disabled by their environment’, citing the lack of accessible buildings or the shortage of ramps on buses.
‘The collective push has to be there and that’s what we’re lacking right now’
Michaela suggests that universities have a responsibility to support disabled students so that they can compete on a level playing field.
‘The absolute most important thing is that accommodation is improved. Student accommodation for disabled people is quite basic. People like me, with my condition, are living much longer and they’re living much healthier lives which means they can move around from home but they also need a much higher level of support and that support is only available when student accommodation is revamped in the way it needs to be.’
‘We’re all allies at the end of the day. [Change] can’t be done by one person, it has to be done by everybody. The collective push has to be there and that’s what we’re lacking right now.’
When asked what the most common misconception she has found people have about disability, she said ‘that you don’t have a brain. If I had a penny for every time I was asked what day centre I went to, I would be a rich person.’
‘My condition actually makes me inherently more intelligent than other people. Genetically, there is something there, which is very interesting.’
Michaela praises social media for its ability to ‘get the word out’ but passionately believes that there needs to be more discussion and openness in order to make progress.
‘Disabled people can only push for progress with the support of others. If you look at the civil rights movement, there were people who weren’t being oppressed who were fighting for civil rights.’
‘I’m a firm believer that everyone at some point in their life will experience some kind of disability, regardless of what it is, so it’s in their own interest.’
Did you go to Michaela’s Richmond Lecture? Let us know your thoughts.