Suzanne Bull MBE: being unexceptional & uninspiring

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This interview with Suzanne Bull MBE, CEO of Attitude is Everything, puts a spotlight on the idea of bravery when we seek to attribute it to disabled people. Despite having made many fearless and bold decisions in life, such as quitting a senior role in pursuit of a passion and ambition to realise Attitude is Everything, Suzanne explains how ‘being brave’ translates to her as a label unjustifiably associated to anyone living with a disability or a long term heath condition. Whether they have in fact done anything brave or not. 

This made for a great debate and discussion, which a podcast would undoubtedly have far better captured, about what being brave means on a personal and individual level.  

Be Braver works from the philosophy that bravery is personal and unique to us all. That finding the clarity, courage, confidence and clarity to act in pursuit of a goal or dream we are driven to achieve is brave. However small or large the risk, fear and belief we need to overcome to us personally.

On that basis, we would say Suzanne has been brave.  Seeing the continued success off Attitude is Everything and being the CEO of the organisation she took a leap of faith to create was brave and it paid off. But she is pretty fearless, so let’s not upset her by saying she’s a brave and inspirational women, instead let’s introduce this as an un-motivating and un-inspiring interview - that just happens to have some brilliant insights in it from a very successful CEO.

 What does it mean to you to Be Braver?

I suspect, like a lot of disabled people, especially those who subscribe to the Social Model of Disability, I have a very awkward, even negative association with the term “being brave” and “be braver.”  It’s the same way that I feel about the term “inspiration.”  Since the Olympics and Paralympics it has become the most over-used word in the media and in every day conversation.  It should only ever be used for the most iconic, or if you are playing Liz Carr’s drinking game – to play this game, you take a shot every time the word “inspiration” is mentioned by a presenter, artist or athlete!

For the take on “inspiration” from a disabled activist’s point of view, here is Stella Young’s “Inspiration Porn” TED talk.  

What does it mean to you to Be Braver?

So if we switch the term “braver” for challenge, then we need to challenge the status quo, every kind of discrimination, every kind of barrier – whether that be physical, institutional, attitudinal and emotional -  in order to develop and evolve our cultures and society.  I’ve just about had to challenge the status quo in every level of my life in order to educate myself, to get employment, to get access to healthcare, to lead Attitude is Everything and contribute to improving Deaf and disabled people’s access to live music, but I wasn’t brave in doing this, it was a real necessity; I had to do it – it was either sink or swim; I wouldn’t have got to where I am now but it is all part of the process when you’re a disabled person.

Being brave is about being true to yourself – and to others as well.  To admit that you’re not good at everything, so focus and strengthen what you are good at, what you excel at, and ask for support or gather the best team around you at work who do have those skills (that’s what it truly means in leadership anyway).  Don’t be scared to follow your dream.  Consider that if you over-think or analyse situations or decisions, this might stop you from moving forward at the right time, or even forward at all.  Having said this, don’t ignore the detail – the proverbial devil really is within it!  There isn’t such a thing as a stupid question – by asking questions, you’ll learn.

Who do you admire for being brave?

Anyone who goes out there and tells it like it is, challenges the status quo.  As I want to push the voices of disabled women forward, then if I have to choose one person, then I’m going to choose Liz Carr.  She plays Clarissa Mullery in Silent Witness and the last series saw a story called “One Day” which focused on abuse of people with a learning disability in a care home.  I was proud to be invited to the screening of it a BAFTA.  I know Liz had been pushing for this storyline and subject matter for a while, and the results were a terrific, well-written drama with acting of the highest quality.  I know that Liz was a driving force behind using disabled employees both behind and in front of the camera, and the subject matter needed to be put out there.  But I know that Liz put herself on the line emotionally because for many disabled people, they have either lived this horror, or live in fear of it.  It was an emotional challenge for her but she also wanted to get her performance authentic, which it absolutely was.  It was an emotional challenge for me watching it and I knew I’d witnessed a piece of breakthrough tv.

When was the last time you were brave?

Approaching my Board 18 months ago with an alternative organisational structure for Attitude is Everything, and a different model of leadership for myself which would mean that I delegated key activities and tasks to my seniors, and that my role became very much more focused around profile-raising and developing external relationships for the organisation, but across less hours a week for myself.  I oversaw a consultation process with an external consultant, the Board and staff, and it was agreed.  I guess the biggest endorsement of it was from Arts Council England who awarded us another set of NPO funding for the next 4 years, based on the new organisational structure.  Undoubtedly the best outcome about this is being able to promote some staff members into more senior roles which myself and the Board had been wanting to do for a very long time.

What’s the bravest thing that you have done?

I was involved in the Steering Group of the original one-year pilot programme for Attitude is Everything which was set up 18 years ago and to lead this programme, it needed its own Project Manager.  I decided to follow my dream and to leave the set-up of the project for 3 months, and then apply for the Project Manager’s job.  I left a senior PR position, which had longevity, to apply for a one year, part time job.  If I hadn’t have got the job, I would have been absolutely gutted!  Probably humiliated aswell. Luckily I did get it.  But it was instinct you know, not for one moment did it enter my head that I was being brave, it was something I just had to do. I want to work in the music industry, I love music, I’m a disabled person, it’s all the skills I know from playing in gigs, understanding about policy, PR & marketing – it all came together.

What lessons has that taught you about yourself?

Quite simply to follow my instinct and live my dream.  Spend my working life doing something that I’m passionate about and that I really enjoy.  We all have a limited time on earth, so let’s make the most of it.  It’s also taught me about the importance of being resilient – the project was only meant to last one year but thanks to the generosity (including financial), advice, time and belief of others, the project grew and became its own charity in April 2008 – you can’t underestimate the building a skilled team of Board, trustees and volunteers, and you need to really value the input of a trusted array of colleagues and mentors.  I think being disabled has helped me be resilient as I’ve had to constantly adjust and do things in a differently way or method, and encourage others to take this approach too because there are certain activities and tasks that I’ll simply never do – like run the 100 meters.  But again, I stress, this isn’t me being brave, it is out of necessity.

I learnt that it is also ok to fail too, which I did lots of times and will continue to do so all my life.  I personally hate failing at anything which I’ve really wanted to achieve or I’ve wanted Attitude is Everything to succeed in, but how are you supposed to learn anything if you don’t make mistakes?  I’ve had to really take a deep breath and accept this important lesson.

Where next for you to Be Braver?

I guess ask me that at the end of March 2019 as that is when the first year of new organisational structure comes to an end and we’ll be accessing the impact of its effectiveness!  My mind will need to be open to change for the greater benefit of Attitude is Everything, if more changes are needed. 

Also, some international travel for work might be on the horizon so I’m looking forward to broadening my cultural skills and understanding on how different diverse communities across the world view disability, and within the context of arts and culture.  I’ll have to be very brave in the traditional sense on the airplane though as flying isn’t easy when you are a wheelchair user.  You never know when you leave your chair at the airport door if you’ll ever see it again, or when it does, if it will be in one piece!

What’s the difference do you think being braver could make?

I think there is a value in challenging yourself and the world around you, in a positive way, i.e. raising issues and suggesting solutions, rather than just constantly pointing out the problems and moaning on.  Speaking up and asking questions is really important.  Being Braver could mean that you end up completely changing your life / your families’ life and circumstances for the better, but there is a strong possibility that you’ll change society for the better too.  Once one person speaks up, others will join in and often there is a chorus of voices to be heard.  Being Braver and encouraging people to adopt different approaches and to do things differently has huge potential in enabling a diverse of voices and views to be heard and respected; you’ll be supporting others in your communities to forge their path into the world.

It is very likely that Being Brave and Doing Things Differently will give you the self-confidence to make other changes, and to rely on yourself more, to be more decisive in the future perhaps, but it depends entirely on the circumstances, of course.

What Being Braver or not taking your usual approach could do, bring you internal peace and satisfaction, and I’ve found that internal strength and focus is a big part in visioning your future and setting your ambitions.

How would you like to inspire women to Be Braver?

To just do it because you won’t find out or learn any other way.  And it is absolutely ok to be fearful, but don’t let fear hold you back or lead to inertia (that can happen to me at various times).  Ask for help.  Trust your gut instinct. 

I’d also like to say, take your time.  Don’t pressurise yourself, be good to yourself and look after your mental health.  If the time isn’t right, then wait.  I say this because I have terrible anxiety at times and I’ve had to learn a lot of coping strategies so that I’m less likely to pressurise myself or others around me unnecessarily, or be consumed with worry so that I get overcome with it.

Do you have a Mantra you would like to share?

Clear your mind (must like when you clear your mind ready for yoga practice at the start of each session), focus your eyes on the prize, visualise success.  Then just do it.