Over the last week I have been following the incredible achievements of Team GB at the Paralympics in Rio. I must admit that my loudest cheers have been for Kadeena Cox and Stephanie Millward, who live with multiple sclerosis (MS) and are supporters of the MS Society. MS is a very unpredictable condition, so it must be very difficult to plan for training when you don't know how you'll feel one week to the next. Indeed, every competitor at the Paralympics has their own personal challenge that they need to overcome - all their achievements are remarkable.
As the nation cheers on the medals won by our Paralympians, one might wonder if we are reaching the point at which disabilities are understood and accepted. Alarmingly, according to our most recent survey, this is far from being the case.
A survey by the MS Society, of over 1,000 people with MS, found that almost half (45%) of people with MS feel they have experienced mistreatment or stigma because of their symptoms. Half of respondents (49%) had been accused of being drunk when they actually had mobility issues, while 47% say they've been told they are exaggerating the extent of their MS because they 'look so well'. 35% have been confronted about parking in a disabled bay because a passers-by judge they weren't disabled enough. And, disturbingly, 17% said that people have made inappropriate jokes about their walking stick or wheelchair.
Sadly it's clear that the results of our survey are not a one off. A number of people from the MS community have talked to us about their experiences, and their anecdotes reinforce our findings. Also, our results are similar to those released by the Disability Hate Crime Network last year, which found 57% of survey respondents (all disabled people) had been 'attacked' on the street in some way as a result of their disability.
This mistreatment of people who have MS is totally unacceptable. MS is already a very challenging condition to live with, and 73% of our respondents said that living with the condition is more difficult when people treat them badly or stigmatise them.
But what can be done? Firstly, we need to help the general public understand MS better - the symptoms and how the condition can affect people - in order to try and tackle any outdated misconceptions. That is what drives the MS Society to carry out surveys such as this, so that we can help raise awareness of the problem. Everyone needs to understand that, just because someone doesn't have a wheelchair, it doesn't mean that they aren't disabled. Just because someone is unsteady on their feet, it doesn't mean they are drunk. Just because someone might seem well on Monday, it doesn't mean that fatigue won't knock them out for the rest of the week.
Secondly, we know that family and friends who understand the condition can be a big support to those facing mistreatment. Of those people living with MS who said they were supported during a difficult incident, 63% received help from a partner, 40% from immediate family and 34% from friends. One lady we spoke to said "My family and friends are a shield for me against misunderstandings and discrimination.". However, MS is unpredictable, so it isn't always easy for family and friends to know what to do. To support family and friends, the MS Society has launched our Live It Well content, which includes day-to-day practical advice for everyone affected by MS. This includes a new guide for family and friends about the condition. To find out more, please go to our website: www.mssociety.org.uk
Thirdly, if you or someone you know faces mistreatment and you need support, call the MS Society on our free helpline on 0808 800 8000.
We must work together - charities, the wider MS community, family and friends and political parties - to challenge the negative remarks that are being made on our streets every day. Otherwise they will continue unchecked and life will be even harder for many of the 100,000 people in the UK living with MS.