Covid and Uncomfortable Choices about Customer Community

The problem with being a disabled business owner who wants to change the world and build a business to a level where it makes a more comfortable life possible, at least for one’s immediate family, is a stark one that has really hit home this year. All businesses need customers. But this year has made clearer than ever that most people don’t think about disability. It’s not just that disabled people aren’t on most people’s radar. When we are, it is often because our needs are either being denied or decried as causing nuisance at best, harm at worst to others.

And that’s at the heart of the problem. How do you do business as a disabled person when you know that to be successful it’s inevitable that some or maybe many of your customers not only don’t understand you but act in a way that’s harmful to you and to people and to a cause you care deeply about.

I am aware that this is not a new challenge. And I’ve also been increasingly aware that it has been tugging at me from the first moment I conceived Rogue Interrobang as a business rather than a hobby. I articulated it first as being about avoiding certain industries. But it’s more than just looking ethical on paper. It’s about the business-customer dynamic. It’s about who we as founders are as people.

Because we should love our customers. All of our customers. We exist so we can provide them with the coolest possible stuff to do things that will set their dreams free – that will enable them to step into the future that they dream of. But what if that future is one in which disabled people like me don’t exist? Or at the very least couldn’t exist because the things we need to thrive, even to survive, are seen as unnecessary complications and hindrances.

How do I love customers like that? Why it’s happened is, I think, understandable and simple. People have become scared. And the things they usually experience in abundance have become scarce. And as Shafir and Mullainathan explain in “Scarcity”, that means they draw in and start making bad and uncharacteristic decisions. The answer is a universal basic income and radical open access. And that’s what I campaign for. But while I can’t separate business and activism into two wholly distinct parts of my life, I didn’t go into business to become a saint and self-denier.

That’s the question. Let me talk a little more about 2020 and Rogue Interrobang and that looming question. The thoughts will be piecemeal. It wouldn’t be me if they weren’t – and one thing I have really learned this year is the importance of hanging on to who you are.

I don’t want to spend too much time talking about the ways in which Covid has disproportionately targeted disabled people. It has been my privilege to contribute to two high level reviews on the subject, one for the Centre for Social Justice’s report, chaired by Lord Shinkwin, and one for the Bonavero Human Rights Institute here in Oxford – you can read my submission here if you want to find out more.

What I do want to say a little bit about is the way that people who have purported, in easier times, to be allies of the disabled have so often disappointed. We have seen a lot in the news about communities coming together, about communal solidarity and spirit. For many in the disabled community, that is something we don’t recognise at all. It has almost become a signal to us that whoever starts talking about it hasn’t understood our experience and is to be treated with caution.

And the result of this is that a public that felt like my natural home now feels like somewhere hostile. I have always loved doing events with the public more than any other aspect of what I do. And yes, I have so often felt moments of genuine connection as we worked on creative puzzles together and I watched as the realisation of what they were capable dawned on their faces. And of course I have known that many of them were probably from a completely different political landscape from mine.

But what it has always been possible to believe is that in a time of crisis, most of these people would come through. Not even that most people would run towards rather than away from the fire – I’m not that naïve. But that most people in good health with rations in their pack would be willing to go cold on the journey to safety to ensure someone slowing and shivering stayed warm enough to stand a chance of making it too. Of course, that was also naïve of me. But it is only this year that I’ve seen it played out so many times that no, that’s not the case. The coat is only given if the person it belongs to can still stay comfortable. On those rare times where that is not the case, it is not given to those who need it based on their need, but based on whether they are deemed deserving.

Of course, I want to change people. I want to make the world better and society kinder and more tolerant and compassionate. And I want to do that by lifting everyone out of the situations imposed on them by the wealthy and the lucky that have driven them into scarcity. That is why I am an activist. It is also why I have developed the tools I have for my business.

I think – and now we are getting to the resolution, fear not! – that I would phrase it like this. Of course I want a better world for everyone, including those whose better world has no place for me. And that is why I am an activist. But I have also spent nearly five decades being part of communities shaped by those people who do not want to create a space for me within them. And that is exhausting, invalidating, and sucking the spirit from me – the main cause of my own scarcity, a scarcity that shrinks my ability to extend the kind thoughts I want to, to give them the full and unwavering commitment and devotion that they deserve as customers.

What this means is that the direction I take when I am able to work again is clearer. However small the community there is left of people who have experienced similar things. Who have not just felt outsiders because of an untapped creative longing or a desire to change the world that they cannot put into action because society denies them access to the skills. That is the community I am in business to reach and to empower. It is not that these are the only people I will do business with. Of course not. It is rather that the shape of Rogue Interrobang is our shape. In a world in which so many spaces are built with corners and ceilings and walls into which we cannot comfortably fit, this is a space made for us. If others want to come in, that’s fine. It’s great. But I’m not going to fundamentally alter the space to make them more comfortable at our expense. That would be not just to lose something for us, but to lose what is special about this space for the world. And having reached that conclusion it is very clear that this, after all that, is what I mean when I talk about being “more white rabbit” and not losing the thing that makes your message important just to make it easier for a world that really needs to hear it unaltered.

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