New research shows 67 per cent of people feel uncomfortable when talking to a disabled person. Photo: Getty
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Two-thirds of us are uncomfortable talking to disabled people: we need time, money and effort to get over the awkwardness

According to new research by disability charity Scope out today, 67 per cent of people feel uncomfortable when talking to a disabled person. This awkwardness stems from ignorance and fear, and the awkward truth is we'll need time, money and whole lot of effort to change attitudes.

I was sitting in a green room with a politician once and he asked me “How long have you been like that?” He was referring, I was aware after a few long seconds, to my wheelchair. I would like to say I said something suitable back, the sort of retort that is both angry and subtle. I didn't. I answered, in what felt much like the disability equivalent of a colleague stopping a meeting to ask how many men I’d slept with and me answering because it seemed the polite thing to do. He told me how “sorry” he was – not for his question, of course – and we got back to being two supposed professionals on a workday.

67 per cent of people feel uncomfortable when talking to a disabled person. A fear of seeming patronising or saying the wrong thing is why most people feel awkward, according to Scope’s new research out today.

It makes me think of the human and the spider. They’re more afraid of you than you are of them. Awkwardness breeds awkwardness. Before you know it, everyone’s awkward. The truth is, I don’t want to be near your awkwardness any more than you want to be awkward. Let’s keep all our awkwardness to ourselves, our faces down and ideally covered in an airtight cardboard box.

The sheer scale of it – two thirds of people! – is a situation that can only be ridiculous and Scope are rightly trying to laugh people out of discomfort, getting The Last Leg’s Alex Brooker to front their new ‘anti-awkward’ advertising campaign*. This is also serious, of course. One-fifth of 18-34 year olds have actually avoided talking to a disabled person because they weren’t sure how to communicate with them. Imagine that on a daily basis. The receptionist talking to the person next to you. The shop assistant avoiding your eyes. This isn’t waiting for the bigots to die out but a fifth of the future population who say they respond to seeing a person who has a disability by actively avoiding acknowledging them. Is this better than the ones who acknowledge by pitying or prying? It’s part of the same pattern. I could live without either.

It would be easy to fall into the idea that becoming more familiar with disability will solve all this. Wouldn't it be different if people understood what it was like to be disabled? If they were more aware of disability, wouldn’t they act differently? 'Awareness', as disability blogger Goldfish points out in her excellent blog on the subject, is not always something to rush towards. It not only creates the idea that a disabled person should be sharing their medical histories at will but creates a relationship between the disabled and the non-disabled that's unequal, characterised by a damaging, charitable pity.

Goldfish writes:

Doing anything for disabled people, including normal things that family members, friends and colleagues do for one another all the time, can be framed as care and take on a special charitable status. Give your non-disabled friend a lift? That's a favour. Give your disabled friend a lift? That's care, have a medal, bask in the warm-fuzzy of your own philanthropy. Thus all interactions with disabled people become tainted with this idea of charity. Employers imagine that employing disabled people would be an act of generosity and compassion, rather than shrewd recruitment. Accessibility is not a matter of fairness, but kindness, and can this organisation afford to be kind? Governments are able to frame disability benefits and social service support as a matter of charity, discussing deserving and undeserving cases, as opposed to straight-forward eligibility.

The characteristics we assign to a non-disabled person interacting with ‘disability’ (never a person, always an issue) are not only an awkward block to equal, normal relationships but create and exacerbate the unequal, different way wider society is told to deal with disabled people.

Awkwardness doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It bleeds onto discrimination and multiple forms of loss of dignity. There’s a chicken and an egg to this. A society that doesn’t steer its resources to counteract the inequality facing disabled people comes from – and leads to – a society that doesn’t view disabled people as equal. If you’re not equal, you don’t truly have personhood. If a disabled person isn't quite a person, it is easy to view support for their inclusion in the world as supererogatory – something nice you may bestow but not a right they can demand. How do you talk to someone that isn’t really a person, like you are? How do you interact with a disability?  

Awkwardness stems from ignorance or fear, of course – from being separate from something and then suddenly having to deal with it. It’s the natural by-product of a society that excludes the disabled. Cuts are removing the basic support that enables many disabled people to get up, get dressed, and leave the house. 400,000 were pushed out of work last year, due to employers failing to offer flexible hours or even provide equipment. Pubs, football grounds, music venues, and shops are still widely inaccessible. It’s hard to be used to talking to disabled people when they’re kept out of where everyone else works and socializes.  

Nothing less than a cultural and economic shift to full humanity for disabled people will improve attitudes to disability. It’ll take time, money, and effort – and an acknowledgement that they are people who matter. That’s the truth, I’m afraid. How terribly awkward.

 

*You can see Alex Brooker in Scope’s new advertising campaign from this Sunday throughout the day and evening on Channel Four, as well as in cinemas, YouTube, and Scope’s website.

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.