Part of inclusive practice means not expecting people to be grateful for meeting their basic needs, argues 2022 Inclusive Cultures participant Anna Cornelius.
Gratitude journals. You might have come across this idea of writing down what you’re grateful for each day to help you appreciate the good things in your life. If you’re targeted by the same algorithms as me, your Instagram feed will be full of adverts for some very fancy notebooks produced for the purpose.
But what does it mean to be grateful in the context of inclusive practice?
We can think about this on an individual level. In the UK, disabled people are legally entitled to “reasonable adjustments” so they can do their jobs, which might mean a physical change (like a ramp) or something less tangible. I have epilepsy and one of my adjustments is access to a quiet space away from my desk, where I can go if my seizures are giving me a bad day.
At an institutional level, we can also think about the commitments organisations make to become more inclusive for everyone: by improving buildings, systems and ways of working across the board.
If you’re on the receiving end of these accommodations, what does it mean to say “thank you” to the institution (or the individual representing the institution in that moment) for making this change?
And if you’re the person enacting such a change, do you expect someone to thank you for this work? Why?
In her book Complaint!, Sara Ahmed describes how “asking for accommodations is framed not only as causing inconvenience to others but as being what you cause: an inconvenience. You have to smile as if in compensation for the inconvenience.”
To choose not to smile or say thank you for accommodations risks being seen as the problem, difficult or disagreeable. If someone doesn’t perform sufficient gratitude, how might this affect their relationship with the other person, especially if they are more senior or powerful?
I hesitated when writing this blog, in case I come across as ungrateful or thankless, with all the negative connotations that come with those words – even though that’s the whole point. When someone asks for what they need, are entitled to, has been promised to them, why should they need to be seen as grateful? And I am relatively lucky: I hold a lot of privilege as a white woman, afforded much more space to express criticism than Black women and women of colour, many of whom like Sara Ahmed are leading (or having to lead) the thinking and activism in this area.
What would it look like to replace gratitude with thanklessness in inclusive practice?
Sometimes at work I’m the person asking for accommodations, and at other times I’m the one being asked, by a colleague, collaborator or member of the public. If I’m doing the asking, I shouldn’t have to be grateful. And if I’m being asked, I need to unpick the expectation for someone to perform gratitude for me – whether through a smile, a thank you email, or some other social or professional capital.
You might think what I’m arguing for is just bad manners. A workplace where no one says thank you is a grim proposition. But we don’t (or shouldn’t) thank employers for paying us for our work, or public venues for keeping us safe when we visit. Disabled people, and people who face other barriers to engaging with cultural institutions, should feel able to have their basic needs fulfilled in the same way, without being grateful for it.
Anna Cornelius is a white, middle-class, disabled woman (although she can pass as non-disabled). She is Head of Communications & Marketing for Wellcome Collection and a trustee for Bishopsgate Institute in London. In 2022, she took part in Clore’s brilliant Inclusive Cultures programme. You can find her on Twitter @annacorneliusss.
- Sara Ahmed, Complaint! (2021)
- Roxane Gay, ‘Who Gets to Be Angry?’, The New York Times (2016)
- The Angry Black Woman, ‘Things You Need to Understand #9 – You Don’t Get a Cookie’ (2008)
Sincere thanks to Simon Farid, Pip Jackson, Kim Simpson and Stuart Waters for helping me develop this blog.