THE BLOG

'Imagine Having A Cripple In Charge Of A Country'

22/11/2016 08:50
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I'll always remember a particular day in one of my Sixth Form lessons. We were learning about President Franklin Roosevelt's role in World War 2 and the fact he was disabled, but forced to hide his impairment.

Then all of a sudden a teacher said: "Imagine having a cripple in charge of a country".

I was stunned.

I couldn't believe what I was hearing, especially as he knew I was a disabled. In an instant I began to doubt myself - should I be lowering my own life goals and ambitions if this is what a teacher thinks about disabled people?

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School should be a place where young people feel accepted and encouraged, but in that moment I felt embarrassed and awkward amongst my peers. I hate the word cripple; I find it offensive and derogatory. The language we use around disability has improved over the years, as have attitudes, but words can still have a huge impact on a disabled person. For a teacher to be using this term, even jokingly, shows how far we have to come.

It's Disability History Month and the theme this year is disability and language. It's amazing what impact someone's language can have on others, and it has me thinking about how impactful people's words and actions can be.

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I switch between using crutches and a wheelchair depending on how far I am travelling. When I'm using my crutches people often assume I have a sprain and it's a temporary thing. They might offer me a seat on public transport, but on the whole they let me get on with my life. When I use the wheelchair things are very different. People may be well meaning, but they often say things that have a more patronising undertone and treat me like a completely different person. Just recently during the Paralympics someone on a bus commented: "You must be so proud of how far your lot have come".

Throughout his political career Roosevelt hid his own disability. His steel braces were painted black and covered by the clothes he wore. As a disabled person, I was shocked and disappointed to find out the lengths he went to in order to hide his disability, but I don't feel he had a choice given the fear of public reaction.

After the most gripping presidential election I've ever seen, it makes me wonder how would a disabled President be perceived today? We've already seen President-elect Donald Trump mocking a disabled reporter during his election campaign and the panic that erupted when Hillary Clinton fainted at the 9/11 memorial - to the point she had to publish her health records.

But it's not just happening in politics. I noticed a story in the news last week. A young autistic boy had been reduced to tears in America after his teacher grabbed a microphone from him before he was able to deliver his line in a school play.

It got me thinking about my own experiences at school and how attitudes around disability need to change. How can someone fulfil their potential when others hold them back - schools need to nurture all pupils, whether they are disabled or not.

Have attitudes changed since Roosevelt's presidency or do disabled people still feel the need to hide their own impairments to appease others? - Sometimes it's easier for me to use my crutches and just 'blend in' than be 'disabled' when using the wheelchair.

If we don't stand up to negative attitudes now, how will the next generation of disabled people feel confident and empowered to pursue their dreams and ambitions.

Over the past few years I have become increasingly aware of the inequalities disabled people face in today's society. Negative attitudes to disability is still a huge issue.

As a 17 year old I wouldn't have dared to challenge my teacher, but now I feel more confident about challenging negative comments and attitudes around disability. They are exactly what has spurred me on to be more vocal and active about implementing change.

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I now work with the disability charity Scope as part of Scope for Change, a unique programme that teaches young disabled people how to run their own campaign. I decided to work with my local councillor and Residents Association to campaign for step-free access at my local train station, because the lack of access is a barrier for so many people to be able to live independently.

Disability History Month is a perfect time to get the conversations going about attitudes towards disability in today's society. But these conversations should not be limited to just one month in the year, because they happen every day for disabled people.

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