New research shows 67 per cent of people feel uncomfortable when talking to a disabled person. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Chuka Umunna calls for "solidarity" among Labour MPs, whoever is voted leader

The full text of shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna's speech to Policy Network on election-winning ideas for Labour's future, and the weaknesses of the New Labour project.

There has never been an easy time to be a social democrat (or “democratic socialist” as we sometimes call ourselves in Britain). Whereas the right can demonise the poor and extol the virtues of the market, and the hard left can demonise the market and extol the role of the state, our position of constraining the domination of markets and reforming the state is, by definition, more complex.

It is nonetheless the case that social democracy has a historic responsibility, in every generation, to renew democracy and preserve a civic culture. This is achieved not through soundbites and slogans, but through the hard-headed development of a progressive politics that reconciles liberty and democracy, new comers and locals to our communities, business and workers, in a common life that preserves security, prosperity and peace.  This historic mission is all the more urgent now and my determination that we succeed has grown not weakened since our election defeat last May.

But, in order to be heard, it is necessary to make balanced and reasonable argument that both animates and inspires our movement, and which is popular and plausible with the people.  The first is pre-requisite to the second; and there is no choice to be made between your party’s fundamental principles and electability. They are mutually dependent - you cannot do one without the other.

We are in the midst of choosing a new leader and it is clear to anyone who has watched the UK Labour Party leadership election this summer that amongst a significant number there is a profound rage against Third Way politics – as pursued by the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and others - as a rejection of our fundamental values.

In the UK there is a view that New Labour accepted an uncritical accommodation with global capital that widened inequality, weakened organised labour and we were too close to the US Republicans and too far from the European left.

I do not believe this is fair, not least because we rescued many of our public services from the scrap heap when we came to office in 1997 and there were very significant achievements  we should celebrate.  New Labour renewed our National Health Service in a fundamental way; we built new schools and improved existing ones; we set up new children’s centres all over the country; we brought in a National Minimum Wage; we worked with others to bring peace to Northern Ireland; we introduced civil partnerships.  Just some of our achievements.

However, though we may take issue with the critique, I do not think we can simply dismiss out of hand those who hold critical views of New Labour. Like any government, the New Labour administration made mistakes - it could and should have achieved more, and done more to challenge the Right’s assumptions about the world. In the end, it is not unreasonable to be ambitious for what your party in government can achieve in building greater equality, liberty, democracy and sustainability. It is far better we acknowledge, not reject, this ambition for a better world, as we seek to forge a new politics of the common good fit for the future.

Realising our values in office has been disrupted by globalisation and the surge of technological forces that are displacing and reshaping industry after industry.

Some argue that globalisation as an ideological construct of the right. But we must recognise that we live in an increasingly integrated world in which markets have led to an unprecedented participation of excluded people in prosperity, a rise in living standards for hundreds of millions  of people and a literacy unprecedented in human history – this is particularly so in emerging economies like my father’s native Nigeria. And the internet has led to a level of accountability that has disturbed elites.

Yet, this has been combined with a concentration of ownership that needs to be challenged, of a subordination of politics that requires creative rather than reactive thinking, and these global forces have exacerbated inequalities as well as helped reduce poverty.

So it is important that we understand the sheer scale and impact of new technologies. At the moment we are engaged in a debate about Uber and its threat to one of the last vestiges of vocational labour markets left in London, those of the black taxi cabs and their attainment of 'The Knowledge'. But the reality is that within the next decade there will be the emergence of driverless cars so we have to intensify our exploration of how to support people in a knowledge economy and the realities of lifelong learning, as well as lifelong teaching. As people live longer we will have to think about how to engage them constructively in work and teaching in new ways.

Once again, I'm addressing all of this, Social Democracy requires a balanced view that domesticates the destructive energy of capital while recognising its creative energy, that recognises the need for new skills rather than simply the protection of old ones. A Social Democracy that recognises that internationalism requires co-operation between states and not a zero sum game that protectionism would encourage.

Above all, Social Democratic politics must recognise the importance of place, of the resources to be found in the local through which the pressures of globalisation can be mediated and shaped. Our job is to shape the future and neither to accept it as a passive fate nor to indulge the fantasy that we can dominate it but to work with the grain of change in order to renew our tradition, recognising the creativity of the workforce, the benefits of democracy and the importance of building a common life.  Sources of value are to be found in local traditions and institutions.

This also requires a recognition that though demonstration and protest are important,; but relationships and conversations are a far more effective way of building a movement for political change.

One of the huge weaknesses of New Labour was in its reliance on mobilisation from the centre rather than organising. It therefore allowed itself to be characterised as an elite project with wide popular support but it did not build a base for its support within the party across the country, and it did not develop leaders from the communities it represented. It was strong on policy but weak on strengthening democratic politics, particularly Labour politics.

Over half a million people are now members, supporters or affiliated supporters of our party, with hundreds of thousands joining in the last few weeks. Some have joined in order to thwart the pursuit of Labour values but many more have joined to further the pursuit of those values, including lots of young people. At a time when so many are walking away from centre left parties across the Western world and many young people do not vote let alone join a party, this is surely something to celebrate.

So it is vital that we now embrace our new joiners and harness the energy they can bring to renewing Labour’s connection with the people. First, we must help as many them as possible to become doorstep activists for our politics. Second, I have long argued UK Labour should campaign and organise not only to win elections but to affect tangible change through local community campaigns. We brought Arnie Graf, the Chicago community organiser who mentored President Obama in his early years, over from the U.S. to help teach us how to community organise more effectively. We should bring Arnie back over to finish the job and help empower our new joiners to be the change they want to see in every community – we need to build on the links they have with local groups and organisations.

I mentioned at the beginning that in every generation Social Democracy is besieged from left and right but the achievements of each generation are defined by the strength of a complex political tradition that strengthens solidarity through protecting democracy and liberty, a role for the state and the market and seeks to shape the future through an inclusive politics. Solidarity is key which is why we must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office.

Yes, these are troubled times for social democrats. All over Europe there is a sense among our traditional voters that we are remote and do not share their concerns or represent their interests or values.  There is surge of support for populist right wing parties from Denmark to France, of more left wing parties in Greece and Spain and in Britain too. There is renewal of imperial politics in Russia, the murderous and abhorrent regime of ISIL in the Middle East, volatility in the Chinese economy and in Europe a flow of immigration that causes fear and anxiety.

But, the task of Social Democracy in our time is to fashion a politics of hope that can bring together divided populations around justice, peace and prosperity so that we can govern ourselves democratically. We have seen worse than this and weathered the storm. I am looking forward, with great optimism to be being part of a generation that renews our relevance and popularity in the years to come.

Chuka Umunna is the shadow business secretary and the Labour MP for Streatham.