Interview : Laura (Mole) Chapman, EQuality Training
Photo : Laura speaking at the National Association of Disabled Staff Networks (NADSN) conference at Bradford University, April 2016.
Laura (aka Mole) Chapman is an outstanding speaker / facilitator who brings humour and masses of energy to the learning environment. She is Director of EQuality Training and is an experienced educationalist, researcher, and author; drawing not only on her extensive knowledge, but also on real life to give refreshing and remarkable insights into the entire equality arena. Having faced oppression and discrimination throughout her life, she has a uniquely personal understanding of the issues surrounding inequality. She has a personal insight into the barriers presented by society on marginalised groups, and a profound understanding of the theory and legislation that affect the cultural landscape. It is this blend of experience and expertise that gives her the capacity to enable solutions that are both different and achievable.
How would you describe yourself in 5 words?
Challenging, passionate, determined, funny, and thoughtful.
How did your career in the equality and diversity world begin?
I have worked in the disability field since university. I had planned on getting a position in HR, but I went to see the Job Centre’s Disability Resettlement Officer and one thing led to another…I worked in a number of similar jobs until I had the time and space to set up EQuality Training. I did this because I felt the need to use my strengths in a better way. I was thinking of my love of food and teaching; the choices as I saw them then were disability awareness trainer or dietician? I thought disability training would be more immediate! It wasn’t, honestly! I had a passion for presenting and a personal understanding, but little did I know then quite how much I had to learn. It was only years later that I begun to understand the meaning of equality. Unlike awareness, equality focuses on institutional discrimination and systemic inequality, not solely the experience of living with impairment. I love teaching, the relational aspect of enabling people to connect dots and become aware of their strengths and their knowledge.
A phone call from the Work Foundation brought a significant milestone. I remember it clearly as I was sat in a car in South Shields on a dull Friday evening. Ian Lawson invited me to speak on a ‘Campaign for Leadership’ programme. While it felt like a real departure from the disability box, ironically it wasn’t. I did not know back then how important a strategic understanding was to the articulation of inequality and social justice. Working with the team was a period of rapid self-development, as I tried to learn as much as possible about leadership in a short period. Looking back I had all the elements, but like most still believed leadership was about position and power. Leadership is an activity that brings together strength and love. As I learned over the next few years, leadership is all about hearing people – empowering them. Soon afterwards, working with colleagues at the NCSL (now National College for Teaching & Leadership) was another leap in my understanding of education, and the support that lead to my first book.
“Looking back I had all the elements, but like most still believed leadership was about position and power. Leadership is an activity that brings together strength and love. As I learned over the next few years, leadership is all about hearing people – empowering them.”
What is ‘EQuality Training’ and what services do you provide?
EQuality Training is the company I founded to promote my work. I find myself very hard to sell, being quite shy when not in performance mode. EQuality Training allows me to feel somewhat cushioned. I’ve employed a few people over the years, particularly in the roles I felt less confident about. The company delivers bespoke training programmes tailored to all types of groups. No two sessions are identical because the people in the room guide everything. The strapline “Hard hitting ideas, delivered with sweetness” says it all!
When a colleague asked me 10 years ago to write a book with them I was ecstatic; I bounced around for a while before the enormity of the task sunk in. I had no idea where to start, I was too afraid to begin, but I had always wanted to be an author. I owe much gratitude to their kindness and patience. I doubt I would have got far without help on the proposal and their understanding of how publishing works. It proved lucky that this initial enthusiasm got me going, having made a significant emotional investment, I accepted the job long before the fear became paralysing. By a certain point giving up means not doing the smaller half of the work left to finish – at least in theory. I doubt I would have ever stuck at it had I not known someone else believed in me!
The following books were easier and less stressful. They were shorter books, written for a largely non-academic audience. Furthermore, they were my sole responsibility. I wasn’t writing in a shared name or under a signed contract. In my own time I could be the perfectionist I wanted to be. In addition, the ‘different perspective’ series gave me more freedom, because the books were intended as introductions to a subject, I felt more relaxed not having to deliver an encyclopedic treatise.
It’s taken me 10 years, but I have found my authors voice! I hope the words I write are straightforward, not academees or so technically weighted they are emotion free. I do try to make sure the subjects I write about are well researched, and that the ideas are grounded in evidence and/or expert knowledge. I am now uncomfortable with my first book, because I have learned so much since, and my world-view has changed as a result. These days I question what I know a lot more, and I am more measured in my assertions. Ironically, it was by looking for a neutral position on truth that I came to appreciate the variety and breadth of many [truths]. The way we experience the world is unique, therefore no two stories will ever be the same, however they’ll be as truthful as each other. I hope that my storytelling will continue to evolve, and that over time I will be more able to convey complex ideas that matter with increasing simplicity.
Do you think there has been a big shift over the last few years with more organisations seeing the value of inclusion and diversity, and making more of an effort to embrace it in the workplace? Is there still work to do?
It’s a bit of a dance I think, we swing forward every so often, then take a few steps back, then gain strength and shuffle sideways…I think different groups move things on at different times. The LGBT+ movement is certainly taking the lead right now, and can really take pride in the impact the group has had on our world. Young people who have shared classrooms with different learners smile at others on the street, but there’s still a lot more to do to restore opportunity of consideration. Particularly for those who happen to be non-verbal but have lots to share, or people with learning difficulties or spells of mental illness. Institutionalisation remains a very real threat to those who are the hardest to hear.
I think things have moved backwards for disabled people of late, the climate of austerity and the insidious blame within welfare debate. Use of the ‘vulnerable’ or ‘deserving’ labels has served to vilify the disabled population. From a human rights perspective, I think the ideas of the disability movement really helps us all look at what we value more broadly as citizens. More than for any other group our voice helps people question what really has worth for humankind. In an age of consumerism, I think we need more compassion and less sales, therefore for well-being’s sake society needs to change for every being to flourish. This is a real challenge globally in a world where growth is unquestioned and sustainability is threatened.
Sadly, disablism is still rarely articulated in the same way as sexism, homophobia, elitism, or racism. I feel disability is largely viewed as a personal problem. This means that even the badge ‘disabled’ is still a difficult one to wear for some – understandably. I feel overall progress is very slow, and unity fragmented, because of the very character of disability prejudice – disablism. Disabled people are still widely believed to be inferior, costly and ultimately the problem; they are seen as a predicament they themselves need to overcome. In the media, a few negative stories fuel the unchallenged belief that disabled people are somehow a fault. Yet, evidence suggests that disabled people are clearly the most underprivileged. Clearly the complexity of the issue obscures the bigger problem: inequality.
“Sadly, disablism is still rarely articulated in the same way as sexism, homophobia, elitism, or racism. I feel disability is largely viewed as a personal problem. This means that even the badge ‘disabled’ is still a difficult one to wear for some – understandably.”
Have you faced any oppression and discrimination in your life?
Yes, often in the past, thankfully less these days. I’m aware of people’s negativity occasionally, maybe not daily, but every few weeks or so. Negative attitudes and difficult behaviour always knocks the breath out of me. Seeing repulsion on people’s faces, or hearing them lie to you because they think you are stupid, is hard to ignore. I cannot believe people think I can’t see their reaction to my difference. I’d like to think that people do not realise what they are doing. I’m getting old [and crotchety] and I despair that change isn’t fast enough. The figures are startling, the scale of injustice is huge, so much education is needed!
On some levels I think people really believe they are being unbiased when they hide behind financial justifications, or they are being kind when they offer voluntary work where they would typically pay a non-disabled person. However, losing out on work is soul destroying, because the effect on self-esteem is dreadful, and discrimination impacts on community life and well-being.
Did you have a support network around you? Is more support needed for people facing discrimination of all types?
Yes and yes! I am extremely lucky to have found professional groups and community networks where people care and value each other. Those people who understand diversity, and make an effort to celebrate individuality always re-establishes my wholeness. It’s a gift, and it’s tangible, because there’s an ocean between benevolence and a real belief in human worth. Nobody is perfect, however we all can succeed in our own way!
Inclusive practice comes in many forms, but it needs to be built on an understanding that we are all better off within interdependent relationships. Expecting people to fit in without a need for change is deeply flawed. The gain is mutual, where sympathy is given but not exchanged always positions the giver above the receiver. Everyone needs to feel valued – not compared. This is possible in some networks, but it depends on the culture of the group. If groups are too focused on a shared problem, as opposed to a positive interest, the more they are likely to re-tell a negative story.
“Inclusive practice comes in many forms, but it needs to be built on an understanding that we are all better off within interdependent relationships. Expecting people to fit in without a need for change is deeply flawed.”
You’re a great public speaker. Has this always come naturally to you? Any tips for keeping an audience engaged?
Thank you so much! I do love talking and crafting a good story. I think it’s important to be honest, even if it makes you feel very vulnerable. I speak from the heart, I try a learn lots, but there are no tricks. I try really hard to talk about what I know, so a lot of research goes on before I speak. I always prepare too much, which is why I enjoy the questions so much. It is a personal voice, but I choose my words carefully for public broadcast. Unlike a private chat, a keynote needs to be accessible to all. It’s a balancing act, I don’t always get it right, but I try hard. I knew I was comfortable speaking to groups long before I started writing, the permanence of the written word still feels more daunting.
Do you enjoy networking?
In all honesty, no. I’m shy. Meeting new people fills me with anxiety. However, I’ve become more comfortable with networking since I’ve stopped selling! It was quite a mindful decision, to see it as a community building exercise, not a financial pitch. Once I am there I enjoy talking with people about most things.
My tip is to tune in, listen better to people. Everyone has an amazing story to share, giving each other time to be heard is a gift.
What are you most proud of?
Positivity in the face of difficult circumstance – stick-ability!
I have a growth mindset, which means I enjoy the challenge of any journey as much as I do arriving at the destination. I’ve not afraid of hard work, or mistakes, they are the only things that pay off. It’s always a bit strange looking back at what sometimes feels like endless drudgery to find you have actually come quite a distance and done amazing stuff. I am proud of my work, my writing, my contribution to boards, my academic efforts!
“Meeting new people fills me with anxiety. However, I’ve become more comfortable with networking since I’ve stopped selling!”
Do you ever have self-doubts professionally and personally?
Yes often, and I have bouts of depression too, so I’m prone to introspection. I think lots of us have dark moments, I certainly get fearful and discouraged. However, when I am in good company bad feelings evaporate. It is not that I fake happiness, it’s that with other people I share real pleasure. On occasion the odd individual can make you feel like rubbish. I have been known to write a blog to relieve the anger. Generally I’m pretty good at making the effort to turn up, so I then get to share the reward of whatever is going on. Sitting on the edge of the bed first thing can be the hardest thing, but I find if I can make it through the shower/coffee/dress the world is a kinder place. It’s not a choice to be brave, so much as a lack of any other option. I am nosy, just curious to see what’s around the next corner. I love my board work, and I can thank C-Change, BELMAS and Staying Put for ongoing well-being and an ability to bounce!
If you could be teleported back to spend ten minutes with your 16 year-old self, are there any words of advice you’d give yourself?
Keep badgering on! And be kind!
“For years you may be the only one at the table talking revolution before the conversation changes and others understand that what you have been saying has meaning for them…” I paraphrase. A great ally gave me that advice. Have more patience…I keep forgetting it took me two decades to build the knowledge I have now, I can’t share it all in a day!
“I think lots of us have dark moments, I certainly get fearful and discouraged. However, when I am in good company bad feelings evaporate.”
You spent time living in France. How is life in France different to the UK? Is their value of diversity and inclusion the same?
My father was a Managing Director at Nestlé, so we moved with him. I was born in Switzerland, but was moved to near Paris when I was 2½. I started school there, before I moved to boarding school aged 13. My first memories are of Saint-Germain, and I certainly feel French in many ways. I enjoy good food, fine wine and honest debate. It’s only looking back that I realise how difficult it must have been for a disabled child to get through school in a typical way in France. I was always the first…! Maybe because my mother was a foreigner, she was more able to break the rules? While the reality of daily living was hard on many levels, I’ve kept a romantic view of the good life we had living there. I no doubt benefited from the social activism started by the ’68 student riots and the revolution they inspired. School wasn’t great for reading, writing and arithmetic, but I became a conscientious citizen! One could say it put me in the right place to work in Equality & Diversity for the rest of my life: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité!
France is unique in its approach to Human Rights, but a contradiction for me. I see strengths and weaknesses in both places. I celebrate being both, not half of either, which also makes me feel like an outsider wherever I am.
What does the rest of 2016 have in store for you?
Parties, wine and conversation! Seriously, I have a PhD to think about so that might mean reading, reading, reading! I will certainly be thinking and sharing lots, in blog or conversation, so learning, learning, learning. Board work will keep me busy and happy. Every year I look forward to the BELMAS conference in June, yet more opportunity to have deep conversation!