Architecture is dominated by a certain bracket of people – white, (upper-)middle class, well-educated – and it has its own hierarchy, which reflects its section of society. As RIBA role model Elsie Owusu puts it, “Many of the men who exert most power in the profession are WHAMs, or ‘Warm-Hearted Alpha Males’. They are talented and highly educated men who enjoy the company of strong-minded women, including their own daughters.” The people I work for and work with think of themselves as accepting and progressive. They want to be that way. Just as they don’t look down on women, they don’t consciously think of mental illness as being scary and making people different or less employable or less worthy – they’re likely to actively distance themselves from those ideas. And that means that there’s huge potential for change if people become aware of the internalised, societally-perpetuated ways in which they are part of a discriminatory system and how much the profession is losing to its own flaws.
Here’s the key, though: just challenging people to act according to their values is not enough. More than anything, failure to accommodate disabilities is bound up in helplessness. When people don’t know how to help they feel powerless, and when they feel powerless they don’t try or they give up. It’s not enough for the people I work for to intend to be accommodating and supportive, any more than it’s enough for me to intend to stay well. What matters is what follows. The best thing I can do, besides looking after myself, is empower my employers and my colleagues. I can teach them to recognise what is going on and let them know what to do. I can try to help people to see that there is a role they can play in making things better and guiding them into it, and – hopefully – showing them that it’s worth it.
An architect I work with was criticising the role models scheme; he said it seemed as though it was trying too hard. He asked why they’re half male and half female when that’s not representative of the profession – what if there were men out there who were better qualified to be role models? Surely they should just have chosen the best people, regardless of their gender or anything else? Isn’t it positive discrimination? To my mind, he missed the point. It exists to highlight the fact that there are women and LGBQ people and trans people and disabled people, people who aren’t white British, people who aren’t upper-middle class – they’re out there, we’re out here. It’s to show that there is a way for us to exist and practice and be respected and valued. He probably has no idea that being on my own in a practice meeting or CPD session with fifteen men is exhausting in ways I can’t explain even to myself, or that when I came across the role models my first reaction was to scan them for examples I could relate to, the kind of person I am, the kind of people I know.
I can advocate for myself. I am learning how to explain what I need from my employers and my colleagues. I try to make space for the kind of open, safe conversations where they can ask questions and get considered answers. I hope that the next time they work with a person who is dealing with illness they will be able to have similar conversations with more confidence. Maybe they will be able to suggest more helpful adjustments or approaches, or will think to ask about warning signs. Maybe they will know where to look for additional resources. Maybe they’ll simply feel more confident.
ad-vocare, to call to, to voice, to speak out
People are listening.
I’m starting to talk.