Disability Etiquette, part 4 – Attitudinal barriers

Man in wheelchair being told by an authority figure "and when we want your opinion, we'll tell you what it is"
Thanks to “Crippen” – http://www.crippencartoons.co.uk.

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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15 thoughts on “Disability Etiquette, part 4 – Attitudinal barriers

  1. Very worrying, Jane. I think one of the hardest – yet most necessary – things non-disabled people have to do is to accept on all levels people with disabilities just as ordinary people.

    It’s the visual and audio sides of disabilities that create a separation. With people like you who has a less visible disability, and with someone like me who has an invisible disability (well, numerous missing body parts, anyway!) no-one even thinks to treat us differently. But as soon as something tangible is spotted or heard, the barriers go up.

    I wonder what can be done to stop non-disabled people being intimidated by the visible/audible elements of disability?


    1. I like to think it is embarrassment and fear of saying the wrong thing – in which case I hope that we can encourage dialogue between people to reduce the fear element. I hope that these blogs will help a bit – sometimes knowing it’s as simple as “ask the person what they will find helpful” can remove the fear.


  2. When I was about 21 I worked for a small High Street branch of an employment agency. One early afternoon I was on my own and a huge guy came in and towered over me sitting at my desk. He had no sense of space and was literally blocking me in.

    It turned out, as far as I could gather, that he was trying to see if I was interested in buying some dish cloths or some such – I guessed this from his actions as he obviously found speaking tortuous and his words were virtually incomprehensible. I can’t remember what I said and I’m sure I could have handled the whole thing better, but he eventually almost lurched out with his stuff.

    I was terrified at the time and livid afterwards. Not with him – with the organisation who thought that this would be beneficial activity for him and a way for him to make some money (he must have had one of those little identity cards they issue). I can’t believe that he ever sold much, if anything and I can’t imagine what hell he went through day after day.

    I’d be interested in thoughts on this one…


    1. It’s an understandable reaction, and, as you say, he was set up to fail really because he wasn’t given the tools or techniques to introduce himself properly and reduce your concerns. Such a shame – and can end up reinforcing neative stereotypes.


  3. Every time I come across this behaviour it shocks me. I live in a small community and at one point my neighbours all met,without my knowledge to decide how to help me.

    I could have done with some help at the time but no one asked me what I needed and so what was offered and needed were not the same and the only outcome was bad feeling.

    Another example was another dog owner asking how I had trained something, so I went into the training method without realising they were marveling, assuming my disability would stop me.

    I agree we are a very long way off equality


  4. I’m afraid we are a long way off disability etiquette being a more positive experience. It has to start with the media and particularly television. It’s pretty rare to see disabled people in key TV roles, producing music or in films. Magazines are still airbrushing ‘supermodels’ for goodness sake.

    I think that many people do get a sense of awkwardness but the solution isn’t to avoid, it’s to work out how not to feel like that and the only solution is more experience.


    1. Thanks James – yes, it would be good to see some disabled people in mainstream roles, not as pathetic objects of pity or paralympians. Most people – disabled and non-disabled – are somewhere in between.


  5. I agree Jane, like most areas where preconceptions are ingrained at a young age (inappropriately) its a long haul to change them… we just have to keep sending out the right messages and evenbreak is a superb way of doing that.


    1. Thank you Elaine – I agree – I don’t think chldren are born with prejudices, but we teach them, through our own prejudices, the media, the news, the lack of portrayl in mainstream roles as James said above.


  6. It’s a long time since ‘Does he take sugar’ was first aired, but it seems not much has changed. Unless you know different?


  7. Hi Jane,

    I am really enjoying your great series. Very interesting and with lots to consider.

    I have been in the situation of being discussed about behund closed doors, more than I care to remember… the other thing that really does hurt me, is when people decide not to invite me to something, as they sure I won’t be able to do it… no matter how many times I try to explain about how much I would value being given the choice, that freedom is often taken away from me. Often its from well meaning people, but they just don’t understand.

    With all things, we can’t ever truly understand what another person is going through, but if we can think a bit more, challenge ourselves, and consider the other person, it would be so much better 🙂


    1. That’s horrible isn’t it Anita – when people exclude you from events without asking to see if you could go? Why do people think they can make decisions on your behalf? Surely you know better than them what you are capable of? As you say, this is often from well-meaning friends, but somehow that makes it even more hurtful.


  8. This has been an eye-opening, excellent series. I do think most non-disabled people are acting out of ignorance rather than malice when they behave in a patronizing way. Your posts are helping to correct that ignorance.


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