Dear Tobacco Factory: Your Casual Ableism Sucks

So as per my last post, last night I went to see a poetry performance at the Tobacco Factory in Southville, Bristol. I had a brilliant time, but was less impressed with the Tobacco Factory itself.

I have been to the Tobacco Factory before for food and drink and it’s been nice enough, although I haven’t been in quite a while. This was my first visit to its theatre. Again, most aspects of the theatre were nice enough, and I would certainly go again. But there was an elephant in the theatre: ableism.

To give a bit of context, both myself and my friend Katie who went to the event have varying levels of illness/ disability. I’m not going to go into the details of Katie’s as that’s not my place, but she struggles a lot with walking and physical exertion and to a lesser extent, so do I. I have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, something you can’t really see, but which can affect the body in a variety of ways. For me, it mainly affects my heart, nervous system, muscles and joints. By mid-2011, when I finished University, I was often bed-bound. Only over the past couple of years have I become well enough to partake in ‘normal’ life. But from 2011 – 2014 I was stuck on benefits, feeling hopeless and alone and not knowing if anything would ever improve.

Because of my illness, I have come to know a lot of wonderful people with invisible illness and disabilities. I’ve also been caught up in the stigma and dialogue surrounding them. Because I was often disbelieved about being ill and thus desperate to ‘prove’ it, it ended up being on the forefront of my mind pretty much always. It came to define me. Thankfully I am out of that headspace now, but it’s easy to see how it happens to people.

Anyway, I still struggle with exertion. I can go up the stairs, do light to moderate exercise and walk for a fairly long time but it does often make me dizzy and exhausted. I’m not ‘normal’ but I’m so much better than I was and for the most part I identify – and can pass – as ‘able’. Unfortunately Katie still struggles a lot with exertion and can’t walk very far – e.g. we entered the building on the ground floor and the theatre was on Level 1. Katie needed to get the lift because she can’t walk up one flight of stairs.

Now, on to the issue. The walls in the Tobacco Factory theatre are plastered with the most frustrating, patronising little ‘motivational lines’. Let me show you a couple:

‘Walking these stairs gets you fit not fat!’
‘Better to lift weights than wait for lifts!’


I really don’t think of myself as someone who is easily offended. I have a pretty dark sense of humour and like to be self-deprecating. I don’t think my frustration with this is an over-the-top reaction.

The stigma about disabilities, invisible disabilities especially, is already bad enough. We live in a society where you have to prove you’re ill to receive the necessary support, even if your illness is invisible. Trust me, making an invisible illness visible is not easy and that’s why you can end up becoming obsessed with it. You end up in a permanent cycle of guilt and worry that you’re not ‘ill enough’ or not coming across as ill enough. I know I was always caught in a trap of wanting to push myself to see if it would help me improve my fitness and get a bit better, versus not wanting to be seen to be doing too much in case I had my benefits – my only means of surviving – taken away. That in itself made me more ill.

Worse, when you have a chronic illness it’s difficult not to beat yourself up about not being able to do the same as ‘normal’ people. Phrases like the ones above just make you all the more conscious of it. Literally all you want to do is be like everyone else and live a normal life.

I imagine that a lot of chronically ill and disabled people seeing these phrases would be hurt. Not all, because we all have different sensibilities and reactions, but I know it hurt my feelings, and Katie’s too.

You have no idea how much we and other people in our position would love to have the choice to take the stairs instead of the lift just for the sake of being a bit fitter and healthier. If only we could lift weights.

Taking the lift is not a choice for those with disabilities – it’s a need.

know that the Tobacco Factory would argue that these phrases only apply to people who are ‘able’ to make the choice to take the stairs over the lift, but that’s the point – ability. It is essentially ableist. It makes people who AREN’T able to do those things feel shitty. It’s not necessary.

What’s more, what if you ARE able and just don’t want to take the fucking stairs? This is a wall telling you that that is the wrong choice. Let’s take a moment to remember that. Fuck that wall. All it does is sit still all day, burning no calories. Get off your high horse, wall. What if you have a super busy job when you’re up and down stairs all day and you’re sick of them? What if you’re exhausted from running around after your kid all day? What if none of that even applies, and you just don’t fucking like stairs? You don’t need an inanimate object guilt-tripping you about not being healthy and active enough.

I do get the reason they’ve done it – y’know, the obesity epidemic continues to be an issue in the western world. It’s depleting our NHS of resources (along with the Tories…) and it’d solve a lot of issues if more people would eat healthily and exercise. I get it. Fine. But this is a theatre! People go there to have a good time – not be guilt-tripped about diet and exercise. I do also appreciate that the idea may have been conceived as a way of showing people that they can make healthier choices in their everyday life and that it all adds up. But remember that not everyone is able to make that choice.

On top of my other health problems, I have also dealt with disordered eating in the past. I’ve never had an ‘eating disorder’, but certainly have a lot of issues surrounding my weight and self-worth. I often feel guilty when I eat certain things, as do many of us, when ‘guilt’ and ‘food’ shouldn’t be a association that we even make. So the kind of messages on the walls in the Tobacco Factory trigger my thinking back to, ‘oh… I’ve had that square of chocolate today so maybe I should take the stairs to contribute to burning the calories from that, because otherwise I’m going to get fat which implies that I believe that I deserve sustenance or deserve to take up physical space with my body, which I don’t…’. I could go on. Hello, self-loathing spiral.

Modern life in the western world is enough of a struggle, disabled or not. We are burning ourselves out, working long hours, inundated with stimuli from all angles. Told we’re not good enough by every advert we walk past. Told we really shouldn’t be doing X or Y, or that we should buy Z to make ourselves more attractive/ more successful. It’s really not necessary or okay for a wall to tell us that on top of every other way we’re seemingly inferior, we’re also fat and fucking lazy.

Sort it out, Tobacco Factory!

Edit: I don’t want to edit the content of my post itself, but since I posted this someone has clarified (see the comments section) that the Tobacco Factory has nothing to do with this particular signage and it’s because a gym used to be in the building upstairs. It does seem strange, though, that they have no power to change this signage if the gym is no longer there and it’s not consistent with TF’s business and brand. I still stand by my request to them to sort it out!