Over the last few years there has been a lot of media attention of the difficulties currently faced by disabled people and it is easy to forget the achievements in rights, accessibility and attitudes that has occurred within the last 30 years. If we were to look back to that time, around 1984, when I was a 'handicapped' kid, we would have seen a very different place for disabled people and I would like to use this article to offer you a flavour of what it was like back then.
I have referred to myself as handicapped because that was the term most widely used at that time formally as well as informally. It was a term I hated and for me portrayed disabled people as 'damaged goods', and that very much summed up how society saw disabled people back then. There did not seem to be as many disabled people as now, as we were deemed to be a minority too small to warrant access to society.
As a result of this assumption, it meant physical accessibility of buildings and transport was very limited. I remember often having to wait outside shops in my larger sized buggy because there was no physical access into the shops, and as an active teenager, this was frustrating to say the least. Buses were clearly totally inaccessible and the idea wheelchair users could one day use any buses was out of the question. My home town, Horsham, with a population of 30000, had just ten disabled parking spaces for the whole town centre for what was then 'orange badge' users.
I went to an all-boys mainstream school when I was 11, after previously being in special education, and at that time, it was unheard of for someone with my level of impairment, particularly with a speech impairment, to attend a 'normal school'. The teachers were as shocked as the pupils and I might as well have been an alien for outer space as I was certainly the freak of the school. This was clearly a lonely position and I often felt I was the only disabled person within a mile, five miles or even ten miles radius.
I think the biggest difference between now and 30 years ago was the stigma that existed for anyone who was seen as disabled. There were very little benefits to being disabled and there were outweighed by society's pity and fear of disabled people, which was huge. While today, many people with hidden impairments appear to be jealous of those of us with visible impairments because they think we have it easier and our grass is greener, I would very much doubt this would have been the same back then, and those with invisible impairments would have had no desire to declare themselves to be disabled. There was in fact a clearer divide between disability and illness, and it is only in more recent times specific groups, like those with mental health issues, have defined themselves to be disabled.
The difference from the handicapped kid I was in 1984, and the disabled adult I am now in 2014, is enormous and I have witnessed my own liberation as improvements in technology, attitudes and the environment has increased my opportunities far beyond I could have ever imagined. The true liberation of all disabled people is within our grasp if we play our cards correctly, and that means making the most of the opportunities this era brings us, as opposed to just whinging about how difficult things are, and so failing to recognise the achievements over the last 30 years. The newcomers to disability need to recognise how things used to be for disabled people, not so they stop campaigning for better things, but so they can realised their part in a much bigger struggle.