Disabled people are at an impasse. After years of campaigning, the public is finally waking up to the unfair and arbitrary cuts we face under this government. Monday night’s Panorama was just one more mainstream documentary highlighting the struggles we face accessing financial and social support. This time, the focus was on private companies that are awarded government contracts to help find disabled people work, yet show scant regard or support for the people they are being paid to help. Panorama claimed to have found evidence of staff using the code “LTB” – lying, thieving bastards – to refer to disabled and unemployed people. How can we expect to be treated with dignity and respect in this context?
Yesterday, the Twitter hashtag #HeardWhilstDisabled gave a pithy insight into the prejudice disabled people are exposed to every single day. The comments people face about their disability on a daily basis ranged from the depressingly offensive (“I think I’d rather kill myself if I was like you. No offence.”) to the daily frustrations of accessing basic services (“Couldn’t you get your chair into a normal fitting room? We use the accessible one for storage.”)
Almost every person with a disability has a similar story to tell. I’ve had people insist that I shouldn’t be allowed to use the London underground as my cough is “disgusting”, a group of girls scream at me “are you dying of Aids?” and a stranger in a bar on a Saturday night ask me at what age my illness, cystic fibrosis, is likely to kill me. Underneath these comments is the idea that because disabled people face challenges in their lives they are, at best, desensitised to ill manners. At worst, it suggests that some people think disabled people are less than human, and that the respect shown to other people is wasted on them.
The best way to fight the isolation and fear caused by these cuts and poor services is to ensure we’re still a valued part of society. To do that, we have to engage in conversation with people about our health and disability, so that far from being seen as different from others, we become assimilated into the conversations in work places and homes throughout the country.
#Heardwhilstdisabled opened many people’s eyes to the rudeness we sometimes have to face, but it also showed that there is confusion amongst the wider public as to what is and isn’t OK to ask. True, there will always be people who relish being offensive to others, but perhaps many just do not understand how disabled people live, or how their ignorance can make things so much harder. By showing the public the prejudice we experience, we can trigger a positive debate on how best to talk about disability in public.
An openness about our health should be two-way. Taking the time to explain our health conditions if someone asks can be frustratingly obvious to those who are ill, but a revelation to the person who asked. The basic rule of thumb, as with all other aspects of society, is to only ask questions that you would want to be asked, and offer to help where you would want help offered. So ask me if my laboured breathing means I need to walk slower, but don’t start the conversation by bringing up my life expectancy. And if I’m with friends or family, always ask me directly if I need assistance – being the invisible person in a conversation is never ideal.
Government rhetoric has been harsh towards disabled people, caught up as they are in the wider controversial debate of strivers v skivers. Mainstream media has been equally complicit in spreading negative stereotypes. But underneath these top-down narratives are everyday people brushing shoulders with each other. Much can be done in passing conversations across the country to help the public realise that disability is pervasive across all of society, and that we just need to know how to talk to each other about it.
In the spirit of openness, perhaps today should be #letstalkdisability day – if non-disabled, you remain courteous and avoid being condescending, and in exchange, we’ll welcome honest questions and take the time to explain what is and isn’t helpful. Who wants to go first?
By Sharron Brennan at BBC News