Once, while parking in a Blue Badge disabled parking bay, a cyclist padlocked his bike to a pole on the kerb, blocking me from getting out of my car. When I asked him if he'd moved it instead of saying yes, an argument kicked off. During the row, which I still am incredulous about, the cyclist decried: "I thought disabled people were all nice", following my protestations that by blocking my exit from my car he was in fact discriminating against me. True story.
When I'm not arguing in the street, I work with businesses to ensure that they have policies and practices in place to facilitate disabled customers and employees, which includes training their staff. As part of this training I ask the trainees about their personal experiences of disability and of meeting disabled people. Many have stories of interacting with disabled people who are vocally unhappy and even confrontational, and so I try explain the reasons why this might be the case. I thought I might explain to you, dear reader, why some disabled people you might meet seem to be not conforming to the idea that we should always be "nice".
I should state that if a disabled person comes across as less than happy over any situation, it is not because they are unhappy about being different. I have explained in many of my articles about the Social Model of Disability, which describes disability as the barriers placed on disabled people by society, with the medical issues we might have being called "impairments". This way of thinking helps explain the real reasons behind a disabled person's occasional loss of calmness and composure. Disabled people want to live normal lives, to be happy and do whatever non-disabled people do. Would you be happy with being trapped in your car by the actions of others? Would you accept politely if the person trapping you refused to change their behaviour? I very much doubt it. Why should disabled people be any different?
There are also deeper reasons. At the age of 15 became a wheelchair user. Once I started using a wheelchair to get around I found much of what I had taken for granted barred to me. I couldn't get into my local cinema, on any buses or trains and even my school's youth club. As the years passed I found I couldn't get into many pubs, or nightclubs and no university would take me. Every day I found I wasn't allowed to do something. Try to imagine what it is like to find the world around you stops you from fulfilling your potential at every turn. Would you be feeling very "nice"?
In 1995 Disability Discrimination Act passed into law, which should have marked a real turning point in the lives of disabled people. Sadly it soon became clear change would not be as dramatic as we had hoped, and even today we are fighting battles, such as that over the one wheelchair space on a bus. While other minorities in the UK are still fighting for equality, they are fighting for fair treatment and not physical changes in the world around us. Being gay doesn't stop you walking up steps, for example. Disabled people, who make up 19% of the population, need physical changes. We understand that is difficult, so we've been patient. It eventually gets to a point, however, when enough is enough. Like anyone else, there's a point when it's tough to stay "nice".
Lastly, it is vital to remember that while many disabled people will live to be old, some will not. They have medical issues that may well shorten their lives, so this continuous call to be patient has an even greater impact on them. I am now 51, which means I outlived my prognosis at birth by 46 years. I experienced living with the knowledge I would die young throughout my life, and found this feeling that change will come one day infuriating. It now is obvious that I will most likely live to a ripe old age, and instead of being overjoyed I find myself even angrier. Things have got better for disabled people in the modern world, but just not as much as I'd like. It's become clear to me that I will die well into my 70s, or even older, in a world still difficult for me to be fully included in. My whole life is going to a struggle just because society sees changing to allow me equality as too much of an ask. If that was your future would you be filled with the joy of "nice"? Now imagine you will die young, and all of the precious time you had ahead of you would be battling to do what most people take for granted. Feeling "nice"?
There are other possible reasons behind a cross cripple, but I will say these are the main ones. So next time you find a disabled person getting angry about something, try to imagine how "nice" you'd be in their shoes, or wheels.
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