We need to look past, not at, disability

People living with disability face fear, prejudice and awkwardness in their interactions with others, says Koren Helbig.
Wheelchair and able bodied person signs

Daniel Lobo under a Creative Commons Licence

They are small, seemingly inconsequential moments of awkwardness. Attempting to shake a hand that isn’t there. Trying to get the attention of someone you’ve just realized is deaf. Deciding between crouching down to meet the eye-line of someone in a wheelchair or standing up straight as normal.

Problem is, these cringe-worthy moments – which are depicted in a new End the Awkward national television campaign by British disability charity Scope – occur daily in the lives of people with disabilities and too often lead to unintentional prejudice or social exclusion.

In Britain, two out of three people feel uncomfortable talking to people with disabilities, according to a new survey. It found younger people, especially men, are twice as likely as older people to feel awkward – and that one-fifth of 18 to 34-year-olds have actually avoided talking to a person with a disability because they weren’t sure how to communicate with them.

‘For most people that’s not down to prejudice or any real hatred for disabled people, it’s more down to not knowing what to do and being worried about saying the wrong thing,’ says Daniel Mazliah, spokesperson for Scope. ‘If three-quarters of your interactions with other people involve awkwardness, involve someone avoiding you or being worried about what they say, then that starts to become a real barrier in your life and it can be the difference between you getting a job or getting on in a workplace or making friends.’

More than one billion people around the world live with some form of disability; that’s about 15 per cent of the global population, according to a 2011 World Health Organization report on disability. Prevalence is on the rise as our population ages, particularly in developed countries. Yet many continue to experience significant barriers, including inadequate policies and standards, lack of services, inadequate funding and lack of accessibility. Many people with disabilities struggle to pay their bills and cover their often expensive medical needs.

Negative attitudes, too, remain a major barrier. People with disabilities continue to be hugely under-represented in the workplace and are often overlooked for jobs because potential employers can’t see past their disabilities. Ill-informed employers can assume people with disabilities are not intelligent enough, will take lots of sick days, or might frustrate other members of staff. In a survey conducted by the UK government 12 years ago, the majority of the 2,064 people canvassed thought the primary reasons for prejudice against people with a disability were fear of difference, lack of awareness and ignorance.

In some cases negative attitudes even breed violent behaviour. About 4 per cent of people with disabilities who responded to Scope’s survey said they had experienced a physical attack in the previous year. Aggressive or hostile behaviour and name-calling were also common. People with mental-health conditions and learning disabilities were more likely to experience negative attitudes and discrimination, while people seemed more comfortable around those with visible disabilities such as physical or sensory disabilities.

Same old problems; new response

These problems are certainly not new. But Scope takes a refreshing approach to raising awareness, tackling the subject with light-hearted humour in a social media-savvy campaign fronted by comedian Alex Brooker, best known for his role on Channel 4’s The Last Leg.

The charity was conscious that it was walking a fine line in using humour to highlight inequality, aware that ill-received social-media campaigns can quickly take on a damaging life of their own. ‘I think you always run the risk of trivialising it slightly,’ says Mazliah on the decision to attempt education via comedy. ‘But hopefully we’ve found that sweet spot between using humour to get people to think about disability and doing something that feels credible to disabled people themselves. It’s such a balancing act.’

Research suggests all this awkwardness comes from lack of contact with people with disabilities. This, Mazliah says, is likely why younger people feel more awkward, as they’re less likely to come into contact with people with disabilities, many of whom acquire their disability later in life.

But British actress Julie Fernandez, who was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease, and who appears in one of the advertisements, believes there’s a darker truth behind the discomfort that able-bodied people feel.

‘We are their “worst nightmare”, the thing which people hope will never happen to them,’ Fernandez writes in a blog for the Huffington Post. ‘You can't wake up one day and have changed race, or sex. But becoming disabled is something which could happen to everyone. And it scares people. I think able bodied people are in denial about their thoughts and feelings towards us – they don’t want to deal with the thought process, so they shut it out.’

Whatever the reason, it is clear that discrimination and exclusion are rooted in fear and stereotyping, which is reinforced by a lack of personal contact with people who have a disability. Perhaps Scope’s campaign takes a small step towards ending the awkward, and therefore ending the inequality.