Disability comes as a result of many circumstances. For some it’s from a freak occurrence such as an accident or an acute medical condition, others are affected by it from birth and still others it happens over time like a dormant beast, slowly waking. For those of you who’ve read my other posts, you’ll know I fall in the last camp, my macular disease remained hidden for almost 40 years and then, a week after my 40th birthday, it began to rear its ugly head when I surrendered my driving licence – You can read more about this in “Cracked Leather and Straight Sixes”.
But what does having a disability really mean? Some people shudder at the mere sound of the word, others prefer to avoid it altogether, opting to use such cringe-worthy alternatives as “diff-abled” or “differently abled”. Some people see it as a merely medical term and then there are the ones who will refer to it as a social construct, arguing that we are disabled because society makes us so.
How can disability be a social construct?
So much of the modern world is designed and built without considering the needs of disabled people. This can be physically when building homes, offices and other infrastructure or digitally when creating content such as designing websites, creating TV shows and films or designing apps. I find this concept interesting because, in a way, it seeks to distract from the physical condition and assign blame to abled people for not paying better care and attention to our needs. But it’s more complex than that, even the most conscientious and accessibility-minded planner will miss off something that could be the difference between freedom and denial of access. That’s not to say that people shouldn’t try their absolute upmost to accommodate, it is essential that they do in order to create an open and welcoming environment, both digital and physical.
But it’s not just about designing an accessible world, it’s also people’s attitudes that can be the difference between accessible and inaccessible. Take public transport for example, we are always so polite when getting on and off trains and buses – letting people out first if they’re waiting. It is commonly believed this is because, deep down, we are all good people.
The challenge comes when that person waiting is disabled or elderly. As much as it is in most people’s nature to be polite, there is a small part of us that just wants to get on with our day without being held up which, is what may happen if we let that person out. But what if that person waiting has a white cane? In which case, they will not see if, just this once, one keeps going.
So, is the reason we let people out not because we are polite, but because we don’t want to be perceived as rude by others? However, if that person we are ignoring can’t see then it’s no problem, right? Considering that 9 out of 10 people who are registered blind have some sort of sight it is highly likely that these actions don’t go unnoticed.
This sounds like I’m tarring all abled people with the same brush, I’m really not – There are so many kind and helpful people; like the American guy a couple of weeks ago who, at Preston Station when our train was unexpectantly cancelled mid-journey, not only helped me off the train, but also guided me to the assistance desk despite having had a hellish journey himself and not slept for 30 hours (you can find out all about this in “Twelve hours to Glasgow)“!.
There are other attitudes too which makes some feel less worthy. For example, have you ever experienced someone talking to your companion instead of you, talking about you as if you’re not there or referred to you as if you’re a piece of baggage? So many times I will be being guided through a railway station and the assistant will say something along the lines of “I’ll just pop you here for a few minutes until your train arrives” and it is, quite frankly, insulting. I’m not alone either, these are the attitudes and behaviours that disabled people experience on a daily basis so it’s no wonder we can feel like second-class citizens.
So, strange as it may seem, we are disabled by society, excluded from a shop because it has no step-free access, not being able to enjoy a show because it has no hearing impaired provision or not being able to eat out because there’s no accessible menu. Of course, it’s not only society that makes us disabled. For me, my degenerative eyesight means I will get lost on an empty street, won’t see a friend of years if they walk straight past me and I worry about losing my 9 year-old every time I take him to the cinema alone.
Are we disabled? Yes, but is that a bad thing? It depends, our physical conditions do not stop us from fulfilling our potentials, it is the attitudes and designs that put us at a disadvantage. All is not lost though, the simplest of things can be done to make for a more inclusive world, simply look beyond the physical and, above all, treat us how you would expect to be treated.
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