In this blog series on disability etiquette, we have already looked at the basics, terminology and physical access. Today’s blog is about the less obvious, but just as important, barriers that disabled people face every day. People’s attitudes. This is often called “unconscious bias” and it refers to how people view disabled people, which will affect the way they behave when around us. Attitudinal barriers are insidious – they impact on every area of life. How we are treated as candidates, employees, colleagues, customers, family members, lovers – people. People’s perceptions of disabled people can affect their life chances in a number of ways. Assumptions made about what people can or can’t do will affect what jobs they are offered, what tasks within the workplace, what training opportunities, opportunities for promotion, access to information and services – the list is endless.
Assumptions about “disabled people” as a whole that I have heard from employers recently include “people in wheelchairs couldn’t wait at tables” (only 8% of disabled people use wheelchairs – what about the other 92%? And what about all the other jobs in your organisation – cleaners, cooks, managers, directors, buyers, IT people, admin assistants?). Another one was “blind people wouldn’t be safe driving fork lift trucks” (maybe not, but not all disabled people are blind, and there are plenty of other jobs that blind people could do at your organisation). Oh, and there was “the customers won’t like it – they’ll feel awkward” (what about the 11 million disabled people and their friends and familiies – do you think they would feel awkward around non-disabled people?).
Assumptions can also affect the way we are treated. Assuming that because someone’s speech is slow or difficult to understand means they have severe learning disabilities and need to be talked to like a five-year-old is quite common. And adults who do have severe learning disabilities should still not be spoken to like they are five-year-olds.
There is something about being disabled that seems to give others the impression they need to make decisions on our behalf, in a way they wouldn’t consider doing with someone without an obvious disability. This is what the whole charity model was built on – non-disabled people thinking they were the best people to decide what diabled people needed or wanted or should have. Discussions behind closed doors about what we think a person might be able to do, or whether they should be involved in a decision, or whether it would all be too much for them. Being disabled means we have an impairment – it doesn’t remove our rights, our decision-making abilities or the fact that no-one knows better than we do about what we can or can’t do.
Mostly, I like to think, these barriers, huge ‘tho they are, are based on ignorance rather than malice. And none of us is immune – disabled or otherwise. I have to constantly question the assumptions I make about people. I have no clue what it’s like to have disabilities other than those I have myself, and I am still constantly surprised by the new things I learn.
Much of the “unconscious bias” is fed by our socialisation as we were growing up – how we were taught at school, what our parents’ views were, what we saw in the media etc. Today the views of disabled people is being fed by media reports of “benefit scroungers”, aimed at justifying cuts in support, and leading to a huge increase in disability hate crime. Programmes like “Saints and Sinners” on TV promote the idea that disabled people are either evil scamming fraudsters, or passive victims and objects of pity. None of this helps the rest of us – society – to realise that disabled people are just as diverse as the rest of the population – clever, not clever, kind, unkind, happy, bitter, thoughtful, selfish – and that we have the same roles – son, daughter, employer, employee, partner, friend – as anyone else.
I hope we are making progress on the practical things – like physical access – but I fear we still have a long way to go in helping people see disabled people as, well, just people who may have additional challenges. What do you think?
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