Spain's unlikely squatters


Around 250,000 seizure orders were served on properties between 2008 and 2012. Estrella Digital under a Creative Commons Licence

To a casual observer, the apartment blocks look much like any other. Well maintained, adequately furnished and with a reliable supply of power and water, few would guess the buildings are squatted by families who lost their jobs and homes to Spain’s long-running economic recession.

Around 250,000 seizure orders were served on properties between 2008 and 2012 but the cash-strapped state offers little support for ruined homeowners. So, in apartments dotted across Spain, grassroots anti- eviction group Platform for Mortgage Affected People is attempting to engineer its own housing-crisis solution.

The Platform is best known for actively obstructing evictions. But it has also occupied 15 blocks of flats and countless more houses, specifically those owned by banks that were bailed out by the government.

It is negotiating for evicted homeowners to live there legally while paying ‘social’ rent – no more than a third of their income. So far, banks have acquiesced in two buildings.

The group reports that over a thousand Spaniards are now squatting these homes, including more than 300 children.

‘Spain has three million empty buildings – the most in Europe – and more than a million of them belong to the banks,’ says the Platform’s Gala Pin. ‘We don’t need to build more houses. We rescued the banks with our money – millions of euros of public money – and they have to give something back.’

Pressure from the Platform and its cohort of disgruntled citizens secured new social housing and mortgage relief laws last year. But the policies have largely been branded a failure. Of the more than 6,000 bank- owned properties given over to social housing under the new laws, as many as two-thirds remain empty because application conditions are so strict. Particularly galling is the clause that requires families to apply through the same financial entity that evicted them in the first place.

‘People have already gone through this emotional trauma and then they have to return to the same banking branch to submit all their documents. It is a barrier,’ says researcher Melissa García Lamarca.

Yet the Spanish government appears more focused on stamping out public displays of discontent than on solving the housing crisis. A controversial and wide-ranging ‘citizen security law’ proposed in late 2013 would impose fines of up to €30,000 ($41,440) on people who obstruct evictions.

The Platform has vowed to continue with civil disobedience regardless. ‘We will not let people sleep in the streets because of any fear of being fined,’ says Pin.

We need to look past, not at, disability

Wheelchair and able bodied person signs

Daniel Lobo under a Creative Commons Licence

They are small, seemingly inconsequential moments of awkwardness. Attempting to shake a hand that isn’t there. Trying to get the attention of someone you’ve just realized is deaf. Deciding between crouching down to meet the eye-line of someone in a wheelchair or standing up straight as normal.

Problem is, these cringe-worthy moments – which are depicted in a new End the Awkward national television campaign by British disability charity Scope – occur daily in the lives of people with disabilities and too often lead to unintentional prejudice or social exclusion.

In Britain, two out of three people feel uncomfortable talking to people with disabilities, according to a new survey. It found younger people, especially men, are twice as likely as older people to feel awkward – and that one-fifth of 18 to 34-year-olds have actually avoided talking to a person with a disability because they weren’t sure how to communicate with them.

‘For most people that’s not down to prejudice or any real hatred for disabled people, it’s more down to not knowing what to do and being worried about saying the wrong thing,’ says Daniel Mazliah, spokesperson for Scope. ‘If three-quarters of your interactions with other people involve awkwardness, involve someone avoiding you or being worried about what they say, then that starts to become a real barrier in your life and it can be the difference between you getting a job or getting on in a workplace or making friends.’

More than one billion people around the world live with some form of disability; that’s about 15 per cent of the global population, according to a 2011 World Health Organization report on disability. Prevalence is on the rise as our population ages, particularly in developed countries. Yet many continue to experience significant barriers, including inadequate policies and standards, lack of services, inadequate funding and lack of accessibility. Many people with disabilities struggle to pay their bills and cover their often expensive medical needs.

Negative attitudes, too, remain a major barrier. People with disabilities continue to be hugely under-represented in the workplace and are often overlooked for jobs because potential employers can’t see past their disabilities. Ill-informed employers can assume people with disabilities are not intelligent enough, will take lots of sick days, or might frustrate other members of staff. In a survey conducted by the UK government 12 years ago, the majority of the 2,064 people canvassed thought the primary reasons for prejudice against people with a disability were fear of difference, lack of awareness and ignorance.

In some cases negative attitudes even breed violent behaviour. About 4 per cent of people with disabilities who responded to Scope’s survey said they had experienced a physical attack in the previous year. Aggressive or hostile behaviour and name-calling were also common. People with mental-health conditions and learning disabilities were more likely to experience negative attitudes and discrimination, while people seemed more comfortable around those with visible disabilities such as physical or sensory disabilities.

Same old problems; new response

These problems are certainly not new. But Scope takes a refreshing approach to raising awareness, tackling the subject with light-hearted humour in a social media-savvy campaign fronted by comedian Alex Brooker, best known for his role on Channel 4’s The Last Leg.

The charity was conscious that it was walking a fine line in using humour to highlight inequality, aware that ill-received social-media campaigns can quickly take on a damaging life of their own. ‘I think you always run the risk of trivialising it slightly,’ says Mazliah on the decision to attempt education via comedy. ‘But hopefully we’ve found that sweet spot between using humour to get people to think about disability and doing something that feels credible to disabled people themselves. It’s such a balancing act.’

Research suggests all this awkwardness comes from lack of contact with people with disabilities. This, Mazliah says, is likely why younger people feel more awkward, as they’re less likely to come into contact with people with disabilities, many of whom acquire their disability later in life.

But British actress Julie Fernandez, who was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease, and who appears in one of the advertisements, believes there’s a darker truth behind the discomfort that able-bodied people feel.

‘We are their “worst nightmare”, the thing which people hope will never happen to them,’ Fernandez writes in a blog for the Huffington Post. ‘You can't wake up one day and have changed race, or sex. But becoming disabled is something which could happen to everyone. And it scares people. I think able bodied people are in denial about their thoughts and feelings towards us – they don’t want to deal with the thought process, so they shut it out.’

Whatever the reason, it is clear that discrimination and exclusion are rooted in fear and stereotyping, which is reinforced by a lack of personal contact with people who have a disability. Perhaps Scope’s campaign takes a small step towards ending the awkward, and therefore ending the inequality.

‘You need a thick skin to cope with disability’

Wheelchair on beach

Mike Anthony Catuira under a Creative Commons Licence

‘Change your appearance so you can be a little kinder on yourself,’ a date once told Melbourne writer and activist Carly Findlay, referring to the genetic skin condition that leaves her skin forever scaly, itchy and shiny red. Too many people, assuming Findlay’s face is flushed crimson with severe sunburn, take the opportunity to publicly scold her. Or worse. ‘If I was in your situation, I’d top myself,’ someone once told her. She tries to adopt a more or less stoic attitude toward the daily ‘staring, commenting and teasing’, knowing it is part and parcel of life with a visible disability.

Findlay’s disability is doubly public, for she writes openly through her blog and social media about life with ickthyosis, an incurable condition that affects only 10 to 20 people per million. With heartfelt missives that read more like deeply personal letters, Findlay, who is 32, bares her private self to a world already looking, questioning and commenting on the outer shell they see. ‘I like to tell my story on my own terms,’ she says. In a tone that suggests she has previously faced the kind of hatred that internet anonymity breeds, she adds: ‘I think you do have to have thick skin.’

Storm of ridicule

It happened late last year. She saw an incoming link to her blog from the user-submitted ‘social news’ website Reddit, clicked through and found her photo had been uploaded to a storm of ridicule. One person suggested she looked like ‘something partially digested by my dog’. It was Findlay’s worst fear, the reason she had initially balked at putting her picture online when she first began blogging in 2001. ‘I don’t get many negative comments on my blog [normally] but I had comments coming over telling me I should kill myself,’ she says. ‘It was weird.’ She decided to fight back with a measured, informative response. It garnered an apology from the person who originally uploaded the photo and support from others who clicked through. Still, it hurt.

‘Just writing down the things that people have said to me, these harsh things, it’s like I’m just playing them back in my head and laughing them off’

A month later, the internet, like the fickle beast it is, gave her an opportunity to connect in a more positive light. Scouting around Twitter one morning in January, Findlay happened across the hashtag, #AbledPeopleSay, through which people with disabilities were documenting things said to them as they went about day-to-day life. The trail led back to American disability activist Lydia Brown, who coined the hashtag to share remarks made daily about her own disability, autism. Things like: ‘If you try harder, maybe it will just go away.’

Dozens of people with disabilities – physical, mental, visible, invisible – were soon chiming in from around the world, including Findlay, who has received such comments as: ‘I know exactly how it feels to have a severe skin condition, I have my eyebrows waxed monthly’, ‘It’s so good that someone like you is out there and not locked away somewhere’, and ‘Don’t you wish there was a cure so you’d look a little less … unfortunate?’

As the Twitter comments multiplied into the hundreds, Findlay was reminded how intrusive people can be towards those with disabilities. But, she says, sharing those words was also surprisingly cathartic. ‘Just writing down the things that people have said to me, these harsh things, it’s like I’m just playing them back in my head and laughing them off.’

Faced with the almost daily barrage of naive or intentionally hurtful comments, Findlay mainly manages to keep her cool, responding politely or laughing it off, skills she learnt as the kid who looked different growing up in a small town near Albury in New South Wales. Occasionally the judgements cut deep, leaving her reeling and upset. Very rarely does she let anger get the better of her, like the time she lobbed the f-bomb in the face of a taxi driver who spluttered ‘what’s on your face?’ before suggesting she smelt bad. ‘I think there’s this expectation that people with disabilities should be meek and mild and polite and just take it,’ she says.

But it can be hard living up to that expectation. ‘Sometimes,’ she says, ‘I just want to get on with my day. I don’t want to be the person who scares a child on the train or be the brunt of teenagers pointing.’ Findlay understands that some people don’t know how to act around those with disabilities, yet she wishes they would at least kick off conversations sans empty platitudes and with a touch of politeness, just the way they would with anyone else.

Words cut deep

The unofficial Twitter campaign seemed to empower people. That week a woman wrote to Findlay, said she’d been holding on to a secret for years, a barbed sentence spat at her by another person, words that cut so deep it hurt even to write them down. She wrote those words to Findlay and something shifted. ‘People tell me their secrets,’ Findlay says. ‘It’s kind of privileged.’

‘I think there’s this expectation that people with disabilities should be meek and mild and polite and just take it’

It’s a trust bred from Findlay’s own willingness to share publicly the intimate details of her life. She looks inside herself, ‘for the shiny bits and the darkness’ and comes to know herself through writing. It’s therapeutic, in a way, for herself and her readers. Recently, Findlay got a boyfriend and immediately began writing about the strangeness and the joy of sharing her life with another. ‘I shed so much skin,’ she writes. ‘Initially I would brush it off his clothes, embarrassed I’d leave my mark on him. I’d worry about the skin in my bed. I’d worry about my peeling face in the morning or how my skin would fall onto him. He has said countless times that it doesn’t bother him. He finds my skin flakes in his pocket and smiles that he’s carrying me with him wherever he goes.’

Her frank, direct words have caught the eye of major news organizations and led to a flurry of speaking and disability activism opportunities. She has won a bunch of awards too; yet, Findlay says, she doesn’t always feel like the journalist she has become. She is just telling her own story, in her own words. Then again, she realizes this is where her talent and power lies, especially when communicated through direct channels like Twitter. ‘Because it’s real people telling their story, it hits home. It’s a start in creating change.’

Subscribe   Ethical Shop