On a trip to Bangladesh during university, UK-born Peter Torres Fremlin stumbled into a conversation with Bengali disability rights activists that would change his life.
“By chance, someone met me and saw that I was going up some stairs with difficulty and so he said ‘ah, you’re a disabled person. We’re disabled people. We have a group. Why don’t you come and visit us?’ And so I thought well I’ll go for a few days, why not?”
That visit catalysed Peter’s desire to focus his life’s work around disability rights.
Throughout his career in international disability rights consulting, now spanning over a dozen years, he has lived extensively in the places he has worked and studied, including Bangladesh, Brazil and Egypt.
In Rio de Janeiro, Peter completed his master’s looking at different ways of imagining the embodiment of disability while discovering to his surprise that he could play wheelchair rugby.
Much of his international cooperation career after that has centred on employment.
Peter says many of the work-related challenges disabled people face around the world come down to social exclusion.
That could come from lacking educational or work experience opportunities, not having the networks which aid in finding work, not having the candidate profile an employer expects, and access barriers throughout the application processes let alone on the job.
Between countries, Peter explains the overarching solutions or goals are similar too.
“How do you find a bridge between a profile that people aren’t expecting so much; part of the labour force that they aren’t accessing so much, and how do you get entrance into environments that aren’t fully ready, and that you can’t wait for perfect? So you have to crack on.”
“The other aspect of this in common,” Peter continues, “policymakers too often sort of think people with disabilities need different types of work, right? … People say, well, just tell me like what work a person with this disability can do. Right? So we’ve really, we’ve really try to resist that.”
While quota systems can in theory be implemented with the aim of encouraging (or obliging) employers to hire more disabled people, they are also one example of a system which can be used or abused in ways disabled people would not expect or want.
Peter gives the example of Egypt’s quota system.
“The local government office would give employers a list, and then the employers would sort of pay people to stay at home. And I’m like, ‘well, that isn’t how it was designed!’ But, I mean, maybe it was, right, like, maybe that was the intention of the quota, to provide, like a kind of social protection or charity through the employer.”
“And it really, really diminishes the trust that disabled people are going to have in the, quote unquote, nice things that are being said, schemes that that sound like they, they might be to help us, or support, support us to get inclusion in society have been, also the mechanisms that have stopped us getting inclusion in society.”
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Zooming out to the wider context within which international cooperation work operates, I asked Peter how he tries to live his values and remain principles-based in a field which, as he has previously reflected, is known for reproducing the hierarchies and inequalities it’s meant to be challenging
“I learned to speak Bengali. I think that was a very important part for me of working in Bangladesh. And I tried to emphasize my work where I do have/can have a longer-term relationship or knowledge of the place that I’m in, rather than sort of being the kind of fly-in, fly-out. I think that on some of the projects I’ve been on, I’ve been able to stay in touch with colleagues afterwards to find out what were we doing, what was going on… being able to stay in touch a little bit with people that the projects were allegedly supporting.”
In Bangladesh, “an important part of this was that I have the relationship as a person, and often outside of the formal steps of meetings or consultations or whatnot. I really sort of emphasize that and give time, I hope, to engage with people where they’re at rather than what your work needs from them.”
On a personal level, Peter has always had a passion for travel, fuelled, he tells me, by the challenge and adventure of working out how to make it possible as a disabled person. He was also motivated by–and would learn from—disabled people living wherever he went.
He describes the connection between disability and travel as a “kind of constant complex interaction that also changes your experience of travel”.
It “changes the places that you go and the ways that you connect with people and the kind of, the adventure of it and what you find out, and how you how you interact with a place.”
Now back in the UK after twelve years living abroad, Peter has started a newsletter Disability debrief, featuring extensive round-ups of disability news around the world, along with in-depth interviews with people working in disability rights.
“I made the newsletter last year, I made it sort of quite naively, before the COVID pandemic, and the crisis of that brought across the world, which then generated, like, also much more news than any of us wanted.”
“The way that I would like to see it, is that disability is really exciting and it’s changing quickly across the world, and how governments and others approach it and what disabled people are doing is really dynamic.”
“I hope it’s a small celebration as well of the huge efforts that our community is making all over the world and the successes that they’re achieving. And unfortunately, the challenges that disabled people continue to face.”