Beyond Lip Service: ‘The Snail and the Shell’ by Bea Groves-McDaniel

10 July 2023

We are almost at the tail end of glut of training here at Difference. We have facilitated lots of learning over the past few months and have reflected on our learning because of that too. We’ve worked with local authorities, housing associations, NHS trusts, heritage sights, and cultural organisations. Most of the time, people want to learn how to better disability allies. They want to know what barriers they are accidentally putting up that stop Disabled people taking part. Sometimes though, doing Disability Equality Training, we meet folks who really don’t want to be there.

These are the workshops that people have been signed up to, sometimes without their knowledge, so that the whole organisation can meet its ‘EDI’ commitments. So that staff can say that they are now aware of disability. But what does this mean? We know that without practice and cultural shifts, nothing actually changes.

We spoke to facilitators in the VCSE sector in the North East who work to make equity, inclusion and diversity a priority, about some of the joys and challenges we face in doing just that.

This blog is by Bea Groves-McDaniel from Difference NE. You can read the sister blog to this one, by Sara Chezari from Connected Voice here.

The Snail and the Shell

I once owned a Giant African Snail. His name was Fred, and he lived in a terrarium in the corner of my room. I’m not exactly sure whether he professed to be male (have you ever asked a snail?), so I may be doing her a disservice. But let’s just go with the flow for the sake of the story.

Fred was a happy snail. He browsed, waved his eye stalks, slithered about, patrolled his domain, and generally led a contented life. But I had the feeling he might be a little lonely, so I found him a partner: a rams-horn snail, whose shell was a trendy shade of pink, and who was non-threateningly smaller than Fred. Pinky (as she became known) had one problem: she had only one eye stalk, and so sometimes had a problem finding her way about. Fred’s response to his cell-mate was at first one of interest. There was a lot of shell-meeting-shell, and even a bit of snail-smooching. Or so it seemed. But when Pinky poked her one-and-only eye stalk out of her shell, Fred flitted to the other side of the terrarium. He shelled-up, and refused to come out. He did this for several days, leaving the forlorn Pinky to wander around looking lost. So sad! After a while, I had to re-home Pinky. Fred then became his normal contented self and seemed glad the errant Pink was no more.

The Moral of the Story

There is a moral to this story. But firstly, let me tell you it is total fiction. I have never owned snails as pets (or even had them for lunch). I wrote the above to illustrate a point about difference. It’s a means of making a point without the usual pontificating from on high. Please forgive me if you got all-committed to the story and wanted it to be ‘real’.

A snails shell against a green background.

Maybe I should start writing snaily romance novels? Whatever, this heavy-handed intro’ was all about difference, and how people would rather NOT see it. I have confronted this myself, being a person who has a rare form of symbrachydactyly (please look it up) and is also transgender. Being acceptable to the social standards that we are born into is a huge trial for those of difference, and especially those who cross intersectional boundaries. Not only do we find ourselves seen as ‘outside’ because of our disability, but also twice-ejected because of presumed identity issues.

Not wanting to know

In the snail story, Fred (clearly) represents the usual British majority punter. They (like Fred) lead their lives in happy ignorance of a world different from their private terrarium. This is deliberate and hegemonic ignorance. It isn’t an ignorance born out of not knowing, but one originating from not wanting to know. To recognise the general idea that the world (terrarium or otherwise) does contain massively different folk (or snails), and that they themselves may be one of them, relies on a defensive mode of perception that only human beings could concoct. A defensive shell of normalcy, that rejects others because of appearance or behaviour. Pinky is our ‘reject’. She has but one eye, and is a shade of shocking pink that only an LGBT+ person could imagine.

The parable projects Fred being appalled that Pinky is not only the wrong colour, but also physically ‘wrong’. The fact that Pink is a perfectly pleasant snail-person, able to make her way in her world, never comes into it. Most of us active in disability campaign work know about this. Especially when we are involved in training groups. We want folk to talk openly about their fears and internalised view of the world, but there is a strong tendency for this discourse to only go ‘shell deep’. That is to say, telling the trainers what they want to be told, and making the usual signs of being good people on the road to redemption. But retreating into their shells (like Fred does), doesn’t make the experience one that changes attitudes. Fred, like any civilised snail (human), doesn’t want others to know he’s afraid of Pinky. So, he retreats, and then returns to ‘normalised’ behaviour when the uncomfortable situation is removed.

Beyond ‘Awareness’

I guess you could say this issue doesn’t just affect disability activists, but also people campaigning around ethnicity, race, sexuality, gender, etc. Nevertheless, the issue of the snail in its shell, and how to create situations where shells are no longer needed, is a specific problem for the Disabled community that needs a lot of analytic work. Yes, I’m on to it. I don’t have any clear solutions right now, but I think it’s entirely possible to improve our training on disability beyond the matter of ‘awareness’, and create circumstances in which shells can fall away.

PS: I hope you don’t find my judgemental comments on non-disabled people (the ‘normals’) too harsh. I think it might have been the cheese I ate this morning.



Bea Groves-McDaniel is Training and Campaigns Coordinator for Difference North East. You can join us as a member to fight for Disability Equality.

You can read the sister blog to this one by Sara Chezari here.