Tom Shakespeare

Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen

It is such a great honour to return to Sunderland to receive this award.

I have such happy memories of working here at the University.  I remember talented students and hard-working colleagues.  I relish all the laughs we shared, including editing the samizdhat staff newsletter in Thornhill Park with Mark Erickson.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt such cameraderie again in a workplace.  But it was fun with a purpose, which was to teach sociology to people from all walks of life, so they could make use of it in their lives.

I thank you to the University for the most generous citation.  I feel this Award reflects my 25 years work in the field of disability rights and disability research, which began here with my first regular job as an academic.  I will always be grateful to Sunderland University for placing your confidence in me.  This was where I published my first papers in 1993 and 1994 and 1995.  Thanks to Cherie Stubbs, Peter Rushton, Harriet Bradley, Kevin Morris and my other wonderful colleagues from those days.

But what’s this to you, my fellow graduates?  Not many of you have disabilities.  But disability is all about non-disabled people.  You can remove barriers. You can challenge stigma and discrimination. You can treat people fairly, regardless of their impairment.  And in all these ways, you can help us build a better world.

After all, disability will affect your life, one day, even if it hasn’t yet.  You might have a loved one with disability – a parent, sibling, partner or child.  You might become disabled yourself.  You almost certainly will experience disability, to be fair.  Because disability is a fact of life, which affects every family in the land. I think this is what the other Shakespeare is talking about in Hamlet, when he refers to “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”

I felt that shock last week.  I’d just had an interesting telephone conversation, I was thinking deeply about some issue, instead of concentrating on cooking my tea, and I tipped a saucepan of boiling water over my arm. Because, Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, despite that generous citation, I am still an idiot.  We are all capable of supreme intelligence and skill, and equally capable of utter stupidity and clumsiness.

You’re here today because you’ve worked hard and succeeded.  And I congratulate you.  Well done.  Wave your richly deserved pieces of paper in the air.  You are all winners.  But I’m here to remind you that human beings have value even if they are not successful.  Even if they don’t pass exams.   Even if they never have glittering careers.  Even if they sometimes fall flat on their faces.

We are all important, regardless.  And what makes the difference in life is the relationship between people.   Like me, what you’ll remember of your time at Sunderland University are not the exams you passed, but the friends you made. The people you accepted, despite their differences, just like my students accepted me, even when I wore a Newcastle United strip to give them a lecture.

That’s what makes life worth living.  That’s what gives people value. Everyone is capable of making this emotional contact, and in the end, it’s the most important reward you can get, whether you’re disabled or non-disabled, whatever field of life you go into.

So I wish you all the best in your future career. Be as successful as you can be.  But never forget what matters in life.  As E.M.Forster famously wrote: ‘Only connect’.

Thank you for listening.

[29 November 2017, Stadium of Light, Sunderland]