Monday, 4 August 2014

Disability Prejudice really does exist

I will never forget Michael Portillo's interview of disabled comedian Francesca Martinez in which she raised the issue of disablism and a hardening of attitudes towards disabled people. He and fellow panellist Andrew Neil, white, middle class, non disabled, both assured her she must be mistaken as new laws have been put into place and besides which neither of them had ever personally encountered prejudice on the grounds of disability and they both think attitudes have improved!

It is this disbelief which is so hard to fight and is so damaging as it prevents any progress being made.
It is fairly easy to find examples. Whenever an article or blog is written by a disabled person about prejudice or discrimination, you will always find comments written by non disabled people disbelieving the author.

Take for instance this excellent post "This is what disability binarism looks like" by "That Crazy Crippled Chick". It decries the ablist meme recently used by George Takei making fun of a wheelchair user who has the temerity to stand up to get alcohol from a shelf.
It describes the prejudice and sometimes even abuse encountered when a disabled person uses a wheelchair but can also stand or walk very short distances. A raft of comments follows by fellow disabled people adding their own experiences and thanking the author for her post.
This does not stop Wendy, against all the evidence and testimonies from all these disabled people, from confidently saying "I don't believe it would occur to any normal person to believe that someone in a wheel chair is faking because they stood for a few moments or moved from their chair to a bus seat."

I think this disbelief has two root causes. The first is that most people are pretty decent and will not act in an overtly malicious way. The second is that a lot of people will not recognise more subtle prejudices and discrimination or simply think disabled people should just "accept it".

As a small and petty example I personally came across, many don't see why the work or club Christmas dinner should be moved to an accessible venue "just for the wheelchair user". Instead they think that the disabled person should "accept that they can't go everywhere".
Now while I fully accept that many places cannot be made wheelchair accessible for practical, historical or even financial reasons, there is no reason not to make sure the venue for the Christmas dinner is wheelchair accessible. Yet for me, this was a yearly and completely unnecessary battle for which I was seen as an annoying trouble maker.

There are many other small passive incidents, often carried out by people who would consider themselves "disability friendly". Taken separately each is fairly small. But add them together day after day and life can sometimes become quite difficult.

Then there are the large nasty incidents. When I recount them I am usually met with disbelief or told I am exaggerating. Close on the heels of this is often a question along the lines of "What had you done?". People are unwilling to believe that non disabled people could act in this way and the fault and responsibility must therefore lie with me.

For instance I sometimes tell people that I have been sworn and spat at simply for being in a wheelchair. The response comes back that either it was my attitude or I was in a dodgy location/time of night.
In one incident I was on a family day out happily being pushed down Weymouth High Street by my Dad. Out of the blue a passing stranger spat on my legs and hissed "Freak" at me before disappearing into the crowd.
When I elaborate and explain, the response usually comes "I can't believe that". So that is it. End of conversation. People would rather believe that I am lying/exaggerating than believe that someone would behave in this manner.

When I was looking for somewhere to live and visiting flats, in separate incidents current residents told me "someone like you can't expect to live somewhere like this" and "we don't want your kind here".
When I did find somewhere to live I faced a battle to get a discrete ramp put in as apparently "it would give the wrong idea".

These are quite extreme incidents, but you can add to these the stares, the nasty comments (eg "People like you shouldn't be let out", "You should have been put down at birth", "If I were you I'd kill myself"), people getting angry when politely asked to let me get past, people running past at till queues and laughing, threats when using disabled parking (even when using a wheelchair) and on and on...

Again, if I tell people about these incidents the reaction is complete disbelief, often followed by "I have never encountered anything like this".

Well, no... As a non disabled person I am not surprised that you have not been stared at, insulted or threatened in the street, spat at or told that you are not wanted. I am not surprised that you have not struggled to get people to ensure you can access the building where meetings or social events are being held.

I am also not surprised that you are unaware of the fact that disabled people often face these battles, because most of the time we simply don't talk about it. This doesn't mean it doesn't happen. The least you can do though is not treat us as as liars, blame us, or dismiss us as exaggerating when we do raise the issue. This in itself is acting in a prejudiced manner, putting the beliefs of non disabled people over the experiences of disabled people.

Finally, even if you would never do the extreme things mentioned in this blog, it is highly possible you very unintentionally do smaller passive things which make life harder or unpleasant for disabled people.

For example, practical obstacles?
  • Do you park on the pavement or drop curbs?
  • When you put your bin out do you ensure there is enough room for a wheelchair to get past?
  • Do you make sure you look at the person you are talking to if they have a hearing impairment?
  • Do you inadvertently lean on people's wheelchairs? (highly uncomfortable and annoying)
Or more insidious attitudes?
  • Do you complain about how unfair it is that disabled people get "special treatment" or "perks"? (eg parking/benefits/work equipment)
  • Do you complain about minor changes put in place for a disabled person? (eg a change of venue)
  • Have you ever disbelieved, blamed or dismissed a disabled person when they explain how difficult something is? (eg finding a flat/disabled toilets/accessible social venues/social care)? 
  • Do you give well meaning but unsolicited medical/lifestyle advice to disabled people? Do you get upset if they don't follow it?
  • Do you get angry/hurt if a disabled person politely refuses your offer of help? (sometimes "help" is more a hindrance than anything else or really is simply not needed)

The vast majority of people do want to do the right thing. But to do that, the first thing that is needed is to listen and accept what we are saying. In my experience many people don't do that as the truth can be very uncomfortable.


  1. I've had them things happen/still happening to me :( So bloody irritating as the non-disabled take offence if I politely turn away their help.
    I haven't been on a train for years and have to go quite a way to see another specialist - and I have to take the train. Hubby will be with me but he either needs his own wheelchair or needs to use mine as some kind of walking aid. I am dreading going, it absolutely terrifies me as I don't know what kind of things I am going to face.
    I've booked a ramp there and back and then there and back again - I only hope that they do turn up as I have no way of getting onto the train otherwise and I really do need to keep this appointment.
    I've also decided that I'm going to invest in a larger hooter and put it on my chair - that'll teach the buggers who won't move :)

  2. Shared to my Facebook page. This reminds me of the way women who speak out about street harassment are often disbelieved by men. Similar dynamic, methinks. I'm not in a wheelchair at present, but may need one in about 10 years (due to Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a degenerative connective tissue disorder). Based on what I'm hearing from my fellow spoonies, I'm worried. (LOL Jacqueline, when/if the time comes, I'll definitely invest in a big hooter.)

    1. Hi Amy.
      Please don't worry too much.
      In terms of people, the vast majority you will meet are perfectly fine and helpful (even overly so at times!), although you may have to remind them to speak to you and not the person you are with, and may have to put up with condescending/patronising attitudes at times.
      You will probably notice stares and such at first but to be honest you soon get used to it.
      Unfortunately you will probably also get some of the low level impatience/anger (for instance when you politely ask people to move aside for you), but this is a minority of people. Based on my experience it certainly shouldn't happen every single time you go out. Having spoken to other disabled people it varies considerably depending on location.
      The really nasty incidents are a very small minority and have happened a handful of times over the course of many years. I know some disabled people have never had such experiences. You might be lucky enough to be one of them.
      The only time you may actually cause difficulties is if you only use your wheelchair sometimes and occasionally get out of it. For instance I use an electric wheelchair but can still stand and walk a few steps. When out I might occasionally stand up to get something off a shelf. I now avoid doing this as it has triggered nasty reactions in the past from people who decided I was "faking". (See link in my blog about "binarism").
      Finally, you will have to deal with the everyday obstacles a wheelchair user has to face: silly ramps and drop curbs which don't really work, blocked pavements, ill thought out shop lay outs which prevent you from getting around, and so on and so forth. This isn't from any malice by anyone, but lack of knowledge and understanding. We can try to educate people, but in the mean time we just have to deal with it as best we can.

    2. Thanks Spoonydoc. I'll most likely be a sometimes wheelchair user if it comes to that--that indignant binary thinking is what I worry about the most. I was encouraged to see so many supportive comments in the Takei post's comment thread--including many who wrote that the discussion had caused them to rethink their views on disability. The trolls were outnumbered this time. Progress!

  3. Thank you so much for linking to my post!! I'll be sharing this :)

  4. not very Christian to have a Christmas dinner in a non accessible venue: maybe that's because Christmas is no longer very religious?