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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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.