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.
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.