Now, that’s interesting. According to a new report by disability charity ‘Sense’, 25% of respondents to a survey they conducted have said they avoided talking to disabled people because it made them uncomfortable, they didn’t know what to say to us and they were frightened of causing offense. Not only that, but this reluctance seems to be age related with younger people avoiding conversation more than their older counterparts.
Why? Do they think we bite or that they might catch something unspeakable from us? Are they concerned that we can only talk about things are disability related such as wheelchairs and hearing aids and white sticks? Do they expect us to intersperse our conversations with technical references to nasty medical stuff like invasive tests, incurable conditions, pharmaceuticals and distasteful bodily functions?
Well, I have news for you folks, I, like so many other disabled people, can, and do, talk about so, so much more.
All the time.
In fact, it’s actually hard to shut many of us, like me, up!
I have a similar range of interests to my non-disabled contemporaries. Similar likes and dislikes, similar worries and and fears, similar opinions about similar things, similar funny stories about the exploits of my amazing family. I love eating sushi and all things Italian but dislike curry and anything spicy. I adore watching athletics and gymnastics on TV but get bored stupid by football and rugby. I hate our current Government and all that it stands for, worry about our Nation’s future and all that is just around the corner with Brexit and Trump and North Korea and Global Warming and, wonder what sort of legacy we are leaving for our children to inherit. I can chat about music and films and last night’s terrible TV offerings and Poldark and the latest goings on in Walford. ?I love reading and have so many favourite authors and genres of literature. I like going out for a drink with my friends in the evening and at the weekend and I’m quite good at pub quizzes.
In other words folks, I’m just like you, I just use a wheelchair to get around instead of legs. That’s it.
What’s so scary then and what is it that makes it so? I reckon the problem is routed in unfamiliarity. For too many years disabled people have been brushed to the side and hidden away and non-disabled people have been told that it’s rude to stare. That awkwardness of unfamiliarity begins from a very early age. Small children are hushed and dragged away from us and told not to ask us questions from practically the moment they learn to speak. I once met an obviously exhausted child aged around five or six, on their way home from school, who pointed to my super-duper wheelchair that had headlights and a horn and flashy indicators and asked their parent if they could have one of THOSE for Christmas. Her mother slapped her and pulled her away. Why? I wasn’t offended, I thought it was funny! My friend’s young son, on the other hand, loved it and told his teacher that his Mum’s friend drove her car in the lving room! Hilarious!
What I’d really like to see is far more opportunities for children to meet disabled people from birth onwards and lose the fear. I’d like kids to use their own, natural curiosity and ask us questions without being slapped down and shushed. When my own children were younger, I used to go to their schools to give talks to children in their middle two Primary years about my life and my impairment and how things would be so much better if the world was fully accessible for all, no matter what, and they lapped it up. I listened to their questions and answered them as best I could. Why can’t that happen more often? All children have PHSE lessons where they learn about health and social issues, why can’t other disabled people, like me, be invited to give talks and take the scarey away? Kids could ask questions and find out what makes us tick in a fun and liberating way. Everyone could have some educational fun together. If people were ‘exposed’ to disabled people more, right from the start then maybe they would realise that we are, essentially, just people, the same as they are. If more disabled kids were educated alongside non-disabled kids in mainstream schools and if there were more disabled teachers and youth leaders then maybe the fear would go. It might take a generation to achieve but, with a bit of thought and effort it could happen and then, just maybe, future surveys would find that the awkwardness had gone.
And, I have a tip for all those people, like those questioned by Sense researchers, who are unsure about what they can say to us to avoid awkwardness and offence, why not try ‘Hello’?