On the fringes?

The mainstream media gives disabled people precious little coverage

Disability is regarded by many commentators as being a fringe concern and we receive precious little coverage in the mainstream media, in comparison with many other sections of society.

On the one hand, disabled people would not welcome the obsessive treatment that is given to Islam by the national press, but it would be nice for our existence to be at least acknowledged once in a while.

This neglect is compounded by the attitude of many employers and service providers, who resent making changes to their business practices for what they see as a tiny minority of the population.

In many cases, the only time that we are discussed is to ask the question, ‘Have disability rights gone too far?’ It is surely premature for the backlash to begin before widespread acceptance has yet been achieved.

It is a truism that there are far more disabled people than most people expect and there is an oft-quoted statistic that one in five of the UK population qualify for protection under the Disability Discrimination Act.

However, this figure is easily dismissed by assuming that most of these people have impairments which are regarded as relatively minor, such as back problems, dyslexia or depression.

Such a view is highly patronising and seriously underestimates the extent of exclusion faced by members of these groups. In any case, even if we grudgingly ignore them, the ‘disability problem’ stubbornly fails to disappear.

For example, 3% of British people have visual impairments that cannot be remedied with glasses, 2% use wheelchairs, and 1% will be diagnosed with schizophrenia in their lives.

We are not hiding. These numbers seem surprising because very few organisations have workforces even remotely reflecting these proportions, and most high street shops cannot be accessed by a lot of disabled people.

Even if there was a reason to visit the city centre, many people are completely unable to get there by public transport. Meanwhile, the total collapse of community cohesion combined with a general inability to cope with unusual behaviour causes many people with mental health difficulties to become socially isolated.

Although the encounters that we have on a day-to-day basis can sometimes be a reliable indicator of the composition of society, in this case they produce a dangerously distorted picture. I have given up any hope that TV with ever do enough to correct this perception.

When it is argued, to choose one example, that websites need not be made accessible to blind people, because not many of them use the internet, this is a clear case of putting the cart before the horse.

To quote a sentimental Kevin Costner film, ‘If you build it they will come.’ Being located in a deep pit, the Eden Project did not find it easy to provide access, but it has been rewarded with thousands of extra visitors, and the number of wheelchairs on show is a striking contrast to other tourist attractions. To someone who is not used to it, they seem to be everywhere.

It will only be possible to get a realistic perspective of the size of the disabled population when the same can be said of every single building in the country. Just one inaccessible shop does more to create segregation than a million veils.

As a child, I was very successful in my schoolwork but found it difficult to make friends. I went to Cambridge University but dropped out after a year due to severe depression and spent most of the next year in a therapeutic community, before returning to Cambridge to complete my degree. I first identified myself as autistic in 1999 while I was studying psychology in London but I was not officially diagnosed until 2004 because of a year travelling in Australia and a great deal of NHS bureaucracy. I spent four years working for the BBC as a question writer for the Weakest Link but I am now studying law with the intention of training to be a solicitor. My hobbies include online poker and korfball, and I will be running the London Marathon in 2007. I now have many friends and I am rarely depressed but I remain single.
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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear