Susanne Rees is Director of iDID Adventure, a social enterprise building resilience through independent adventure.
Describe yourself in one sentence.
I am positively tenacious and passionate about innovation.
How does the concept of equality motivate you?
Equality motivates me in everything I do. I am working in disability equality at the moment. My approach is quite simple - involve to create understanding. I believe that equality is a two-way relationship; it is important to nurture both sides. Here is an example:
Jack is a rock climbing instructor. He has never worked with a customer who has a disability. His instructor training has taught him nothing about rope climbing with someone who has cerebral palsy and yet a customer comes to him who has limited dexterity and strength, and cannot climb without extra support. She is determined and wants to climb but Jack is scared: society has taught him that this customer needs expert help. Jack apologises and informs the customer they cannot climb because he has never worked with a disabled climber before and signposts his customer to an expert.
Jack's customer is left angry that she has been turned away, Jack's attitude is labelled as discriminatory and his organisation labelled as unequal. Jack is frustrated because he wants to be able to help his customer but doesn't know how to. Whose fault is this?
I believe this is no-one's fault. Jack is a product of a generation of inequality and has never seen disability outside of a special needs group. He regularly sees TV programmes and advertisements of disabled people who cannot look after themselves and is subjected to a stereotype which says to work with disabled individuals, you need specialist training, disregarding the fact Jack has training in every rope system possible and could easily adjust his knowledge to his customers’ needs. He does not realise this because he hasn't got a certificate to say 'You can teach disabled people'.
This is where my belief comes in - people have the skills to provide equality but they may not realise this. Involving Jack in learning rather than criticising him will help him realise he has all the skills he needs. By teaching him disability awareness and reframing the attitudes he has been taught through television and through his life, he will understand: he is the expert.
‘Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.’ - Benjamin Franklin
How has your own life and work experience contributed to your passion for equality?
It's interesting to look back on your own life and try to discover what has fuelled certain passions and beliefs. Even before I became disabled, I was passionate about equality. I may not have understood it at the time but reflecting on it now, I can see ripples of my beliefs from when I was around 14. I remember very clearly being in a drama lesson that was covered by a PE teacher. Our task was to write a short screenplay. I often dread writing tasks because my handwriting is very messy. I now know this is because of tumours that affect my perception but then I was labelled as scruffy. I handed my screenplay in and was shocked when the cover teacher began a tirade against me (in front of all of my classmates) about the state of my handwriting. I argued that I had tried to tackle my writing but it wouldn't get better. I was accused of lying and not making enough effort, and he humiliated me in front of all my friends. Naturally, I might have cowered or cried but I saw a huge amount of inequality here. Who was he to say he is right and I am wrong... just because he had a degree in teaching?!
As a 14-year old, I naturally didn't have the best communication skills and coupled with a bit of attitude, I (not so politely) challenged the teacher in front of everyone. Now he became the subject of humiliation and was outraged to be challenged by a 14-year-old girl. I was put in isolation for a week.
There were other experiences at school that highlighted contradiction and hypocrisy and I didn't like it. Things like being marched to the headmaster’s office (I know I sound like an awful student... I was - I challenged the system) to be told what an under-performing and disappointing student I was, while standing next to my own work that was showcased in his office, along with other students' work, as exemplary.
At the age of 19, I was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis type 2, a rare genetic condition that causes tumours to grow throughout the brain and spinal cord. I have had major surgery to remove tumours in my cerebellum, radiosurgery to stop tumours growing, major surgery to remove an acoustic neuroma, meningitis, liver failure, facial palsy and also short-term epilepsy. I'm not saying this to show off: my point is that I have experienced many different areas of the NHS, different avenues in life and my life experiences for a 27-year old are vast. This has given me a unique insight into the operations of major institutions in society. At the age of 23, I lost my hearing and was made redundant from a job I loved. I made a decision to go to university and enrolled at my local college to get some qualifications (you may have noted that I wasn't the best student).
This was a huge turning point in my life. I began to see an enormous amount of inequality but also began to understand that society is not always shaped to create equality. I began to learn and understand that being angry and criticising people wasn't an effective teaching method. All of my life experience has shaped my beliefs.
You have recently started your own social enterprise. How will this contribute to a more equal UK?
iDID is grounded in my belief in equality. iDID works to not only provide opportunities for disabled individuals in adventure sports, but also to support adventure providers in understanding equality and provide them with the skills they need to deliver their services to the disabled community.
The iDID model is so effective because it supports and develops both sides. For individuals that take part in our activities, we support them to realise their own potential by giving them an equal platform to their non-disabled peers. For adventure providers, we support them by equipping them with knowledge and awareness of disability through our training, and teach them to treat disabled individuals as customers rather than as a special need group.
Empowering both individuals and adventure providers has an impact beyond adventure sports; wider society benefits from empowerment as institutions are challenged to address social inequality through an increase in disabled engagement.
As a young disabled social entrepreneur, what kind of opportunities do you think are out there for disabled people?
I think there are many opportunities for disabled people - what is lacking is self-belief and the right attitude towards involvement.
I have experienced it myself. I have felt the need to apologise for my disability and to apologise that I need to adapt certain things to accommodate it. More opportunities are becoming available to disabled people to learn about leadership; this is very empowering and is something that I have used myself through taking part in leadership courses. What there seems to be a lack of is learning about world language; by this I don't mean cultural languages, I mean business, economics, team working, time management and work ethic. Those are real skills that put people at an advantage from both a leadership and employment angle.
I have seen many individuals who have either a wealth of leadership skills but no work ethic or other employable skills, or individuals with a wealth of employable skills but no leadership or self-belief. Just think, coupled together, how powerful that would be.
This is an area I am personally aiming to tackle: to teach these skills to deaf and disabled communities so that they have equal skills in the employment world and are equipped with the right knowledge to succeed in realising their own potential.
Do you have a motto or favourite quote you would like to share?
Oh, I do love a good quote... I have to say my favourite quote is by Christine Mason Miller:
‘At any given moment you have the power to say: this is not how the story is going to end.’
What advice would you give to equality pioneers starting out on their projects?
The best advice I can give is to really focus on your aims. Any task you do should bring you back to your aims - if it doesn't, you may need to re-address it. More importantly, make sure you take an unbiased view of your 'equality': is it really equal for all?
Passion is a major driver of equality but it is important that you involve people in your passion.