The reaction I get when someone realises I am disabled is usually one of three
The patronising sympathy attitude
Recently in a café a man came up to me and said I was doing really well. He asked if I had spina bifida, which was rather a personal thing to ask, none of his business and wrong. I explained I had a hip replacement. He then went on to tell me he used to work in a special school with people like me and I was doing really well. I know he meant well, but I found it annoying. Firstly ‘people like me’ just labels me as special needs and does not give me any credit as an individual person. Secondly how does he know I am doing really well? I was in a café with my mum, nothing remarkable in that. What is a disabled person supposed to do? Either I carry on with life like everyone else or roll over and die. I guess I could sit at home all day, everyday and get very depressed and lonely, lamenting woe is me I am disabled or I could go out and have some kind of a life. Also being disabled physically does not make me stupid. The man in the café may have thought I was doing well to be so functioning. Well I chose my own drink, ordered it and paid for it, and do this kind of thing on a regular basis. In fact I live alone and do not have a carer.
The fact he used to work in a special school with that kind of attitude annoyed, but did not surprise me. I spent three years in a special needs school as a teenager and this was something that annoyed me on an almost daily basis, the patronising attitude of some of the staff. I think I may have acted up a little bit less perhaps if the staff had expected more of me. Thankfully my parents were never patronising and never let me use my disability as an excuse to not make an effort or learn things. I can do a lot more for myself now thanks to my parents making me learn than I may have been able to do otherwise had it been left up to school.
The super human Paralympics attitude
I watched the Paralympics opening ceremony earlier this month. I like the Paralympics; they are fun and help promote disabled issues around the world. On phrase I dislike that was also used a lot in the 2012 Paralympics, that disabled athletes are ‘superhuman’. I admit that they achieve some incredible things, but why are they superhuman? Disabled people are only joining in sport like everyone else. Sport for some people seems to be something natural, an instinct, why is it so amazing that a disabled person would also have this? Yes it is often harder for a disabled person to be able to join a sport, but it can be tricky for anyone to join sports, especially at an Olympic level. Sometimes the Paralympics can make it harder for the disabled with people thinking that if the Paralympians can achieve so much why can’t all disabled people. For example someone once said to me that if the disabled athletes can do that, why I can not even get a job. When it comes to work my physical issues are the least of my problems, like all disabled people I have more going on in my life than just my disability. Every four years it is like we are all suddenly expected to be superhuman. Well I will win a Paralympic medal the day all my non-disabled friends win an Olympic medal. Rob Crosan in the Telegraph puts it well, ‘The Chances of most disabled people becoming a world class athlete is roughly the same as it is for able-bodied people (i.e. nil).’
The scrounger on benefits attitude
I would love to have a paying job and not be on benefits, but that does not seem to be an option for me right now. There is only a brief three month period of my life I can remember being totally off any benefits as an a adult when I had part time temp job. I was on job seekers allowance for a number of years before changing to employment support allowance for health reasons. At first on job seekers everyone seemed supportive, but the longer I remained on it the more the support seemed to decline. People who understood my situation less well started to say not very nice things. Apparently I was lazy, not trying hard enough or too fussy about the type of work I would do. If only they knew how hard I was trying to get work, attending interview after interview and getting rejected over and over. I ended up having to remove a couple of people who I thought were friends from social media for saying very negative things about people on benefits.
The media do not help with the scrounger attitude some people have. There are so many newspaper articles about benefits cheats that it must seem to some that the vast majority cheat the system. For example if you type the words disabled or disability into an internet news search, you nearly always get at least one article on someone who has been caught cheating benefits. Yes, a few people do lie and claim benefits falsely, but the vast majority do not. ‘Official data shows that there is nearly twice as much error as fraud in the benefits system’ (www.disabilityrightsuk.org). Less than one percent of people are benefits are said to be fraudulently claiming. The media often muddle up fraud statistics with system errors making the fraud look much worse than it actually is. The government have also made things worse by constantly banging on about cutting disability benefits and catching benefit cheats. However if I was to come off ESA I would have no income coming in at all apart from housing benefit which gets paid straight to my housing association anyway.
I am not a scrounger; I volunteer a lot in my local community. I am not super human, I am rubbish at sport, but I also do not want your sympathy. I am simply me, a human being, but as Penny Pepper writes in the Guardian, ‘It truly seems that the only acceptable disabled person is a Paralympian – and then only for a few weeks’. All disabled people just want to be accepted as themselves and not just during the Paralympics, but all of the time.
Rob Crosan, Telegraph, 15.09.2016
Penny Pepper, the Guardian, 06.09.2016